Monday, March 22, 2010

Roger Hudson on Ancient Athens, Dark Monasteries, and The Land of the Forever Young

Roger Hudson’s career has covered many forms of researching and writing--from journalism to publicity to careers books, plus scripting corporate videos and TV documentaries. This wide life experience has fed into his acclaimed debut historical mystery novel Death Comes by Amphora (2007), set in ancient Athens, and its anticipated sequel, Fraud Under the Akropolis. Hudson grew up near Guildford, Surrey, worked many years in London and Dublin and now lives in Drogheda, Ireland.

Roger, thanks for chatting with me.

Your historical crime novel, Death Comes by Amphora, is set in Ancient Athens. You are the third author I’ve interviewed here who has set a mystery in Ancient Greece or Rome. Does this setting go hand-in-hand with mystery?

My period, Ancient Athens around 461BC certainly does. In fact, it was a mystery that first interested me in the year. Who assassinated the radical politician Ephialtes? They nailed a foreigner for it but, as Ephialtes had brought in the reforms that took power away from the aristocrats and gave it to the rest of ‘the people’ (demos), chances are other people were behind it. Many of the mysteries of the time are puzzles for the writer rather than unsolved crimes and are down to the general shortage of hard information, so quite a bit of detective work for me in piecing together the background story and filling the gaps.

Should I interpret the title to mean that the death in question is IN the amphora, perhaps in the form of poison, or that the amphora itself becomes the murder weapon? Or is it meant to be ambiguous so that I’ll read the book? :)

In my case, the amphora is the murder weapon but I did want that sense of ambiguity. I think I was also after a touch of the incongruous, of an everyday object (for the period) being the cause of death – like ‘Death by Saucepan’.

How did you happen to choose the mystery genre?

I mentioned to a friend in the publishing business that I had long wanted to write about the events surrounding the assassination of Ephialtes (a lot of other exciting stuff was going on that year) and he suggested that the best way to get a historical novel published was to make it a detective novel. So I came up with a plot and the characters of Lysanias and Sindron as my Holmes and Watson and it proceeded to grab hold of my imagination.

Your town, near Dublin, contains “the only surviving medieval barbican in Ireland.” Did this lovely piece of history inspire you to write about the ancient world?

Afraid not, nor the even more ancient site of Newgrange just outside the town, which is older than the pyramids. I was living in Dublin when I wrote the first draft, though Dublin has plenty of history too. But I must admit seeing that barbican reminding me of the past every time I walk down the street is a great inspiration generally.

And seeing old paintings and prints of Drogheda when its medieval stone walls were still in place creeping up the hills and along the ridges with fortified gates like the barbican at intervals has helped me visualize what Athens may have been like. It could have been a similar size.

How wonderful, really, that it's a part of your everyday life. You are also a poet, and you write, on your blog, about “poetry that’s really poetry and not prose in short lines.” Can you expand on this distinction?

I joined a poetry group a while back where someone inferred that my stuff was really prose not poetry. I was very offended at the time and walked out but it did make me look at it again and, as I was meeting up with a younger published poet and swapping ideas and knowledge, I somehow acquired the ability to make integral use of poetic idioms – repetition, asonance, alliteration, onomatopeia, rhythm and so on. Even the previous memoir-like pieces gained a new vitality when re-written this way. That said, I have since come across recognized poets whose work seems very prosaic to me and where the poetic element is in the subject matter and way of seeing rather than the style.

Have you always been a poet? Does your poetic instinct drive the way that you write prose?

No, it’s relatively recent, though I do remember writing a little bit of doggerel at primary school. But it seems there are some things I wanted to say about life and my experiences that could only be expressed that way. It’s a whole different ballgame though, very little overlap. I like to think my prose has a rhythm to it, that my choice of words is apposite and elegant, that incorporation of the world of the senses, sight, sound, smell, feel is comparable to that of a poet, but none of my characters, through whose eyes the reader sees ancient Athens, lays claim to being a poet (unlike Nick Drake’s Rahotep) so no poetic phrasing for their thoughts.

Do you read mysteries as well as write them? What’s the best mystery you ever read?

It’s strange that, once you’re an author, you read partly to see what other writers are doing with the genre and to spot the mistakes they’ve made that you need to avoid. But, yes, I do, though not as much as I’d like – not the time. I have started contributing reviews to Alan Bishop’s Criminal History ezine though. The best mystery? That’s a difficult one – there are so many I’ve enjoyed. A book that has stuck in my mind is The Name of the Rose but maybe less for the mystery (though it is intriguing) than for that strange dark monastery that becomes a character in itself and the background menace of the world of fierce beliefs and violent conflict between sects within the Christian church that Umberto Ecco incorporates. Among non-historicals, Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise fascinated me but as much for the subtle portrait of the British class system as the detection. More recently, Nick Drake’s Tutankhamun knocked me out.

You and your older son are both in some way involved in film. Is this a family passion?

I don’t think I’d put it that way. But there are long family connections. My mother was an ardent cinema-goer and took me and my sister with her from an early age. My father drove a giant cinema van during the war (WWII), parking on village greens and showing cartoons and newsreels and propaganda for people to invest their savings in war bonds. After the war it became patriotic feature films in schools and village halls. I would sometimes go with him.

More important was being at college when the French nouvelle vague arrived and seeing old black and white classics in screenings in the Biology Lecture Theatre run by the Film Society. I was hooked, though I haven’t really achieved as much in this area as I’d have liked. I guess some of it must have rubbed off on Simon.

What does running an independent film and tv production company entail?

That’s just impossible to cover briefly, especially if one includes distribution, which we do as well.

What sorts of films do you make?

Mainly documentaries. My biggest so far as director is Wordweaver, an arts documentary about Benedict Kiely, an Irish novelist and short story writer well known in Ireland but very little outside.

Our other projects are about artists, history, social and current affairs. Distribution titles range from Bloom, a screen version of James Joyce’s Ulysses, to a delightful Japanese coming of age movie directed by a Welsh ex-pat called Firefly Dreams, from the world classic Soviet-Cuban film I Am Cuba with its stunningly beautiful photography, to a forthcoming powerful Irish gangster movie on the theme of people trafficking called Trafficked.

Who is your favorite film maker, living or deceased?

Just can’t do that. So many great guys. Eisenstein probably had the most impact, with his sheer eagerness to experiment. Pabst and Renoir for their understanding of humans and sensuality. Orson Welles, Truffaut and early Goddard for the experimentation and sense of fun. But Griffith and Buster Keaton as well. And, of course, anyone who could make both Alien and Bladerunner has to be in there – Ridley Scott. And then there’s … I give up - the list is endless.

A great list! Your life, as described on your website, is rich with detail and history. What was the most interesting job you ever had (other than the present one, of course)?

I was engaged as a freelance journalist by an unusually imaginative civil servant running a small government agency publishing careers literature for schools who had decided that the information would get through to kids better as interview features in leaflet and booklet form. So, to my great delight, I was paid to get to know the manufacturing processes of a whole range of industries – engineering, construction, foundries, shipbuilding, chemicals, transport, you name it. The massive scale or intricate detail, the giant machines, terrifying noises, powerful smells. Absolutely fascinating. Not just walking round these places and observing, but talking one-to-one with technicians, craftsmen and semi-skilled workers.

The sheer skill in the mental gymnastics a turner or fitter or, especially, a foundry patternmaker had to perform to create the essentials of our world amazed me. Much of that skill, of course, now gone to computerization, but we owed those guys a lot. Finding ways of writing it to communicate to the youngsters was a challenge too. Strangely, it has had a spin-off in writing the novel.

Yes! Your book, as we mentioned, is set in Ancient Athens. What’s the most important lesson the world could learn today from the thinkers of Athens?

I think most of them have a lot to answer for in the ways their ideas have sometimes influenced the world after their time. But I’d suggest that, if our politicians, economists, businessmen paid attention to Heraclitus’ belief that change is the only constant, that all things change and nothing stays fixed, we might have avoided the belief that they could achieve some plateau where the market would regulate everything and we would all get richer and richer. Look what happened!

And what may happen again . . . Have you ever visited Greece?

Several times, but not as much as I really should and would like to. Plans to do more research there this year.

Congratulations on the birth of your new grandchild. Will you be dedicating a book to the new arrival?

Thank you. His name is Oisin and my next poetry book, Greybell Wood and Beyond, is already dedicated to him with a wish that he grow up with a better grip on reality than his namesake, the legendary hero who was lured away to the Land of Forever Young, where no-one ever grows old, and met disaster when he came back and encountered the real world, and better than his father and grandfather who have often pursued unachievable fantasies (though sometimes with a degree of satisfaction and achievement). No firm publication date yet, though.

But what a lovely name, and how nice to be named for anyone in literature. What are you reading now?

Apart from books on Athenian law cases for the series on true crimes I’ve started in my blog, I’ve perhaps boringly been re-reading Herodotus’ Histories . Fascinating stuff and such a lovely personality. It’s as though he’s there, talking in your ear, gossiping about other lands. It tells so much about the Greek mind of the time, his openness to all ideas from wildest superstition to the most gruesome events.

Amusingly (to us), he could take on board the possibility of one-eyed men in the distant North but know that the sailor who claimed to have circumnavigated Africa must be lying because he said that, when he turned west at the bottom of the continent, the sun was on his right, exactly what proves it to us. P.S. He is clamouring to appear in the sequel to Death Comes by Amphora, by the way.

That would be wonderful! How can readers find out more about you and your mystery series?

A good start is my website at Pages of info there and links to the company’s website, reviews, etc. Then following my recently started blog Ancient Villainies at should keep them up to date with what I’m doing, if I can maintain the pace the internet seems to demand. I’m hoping to get to grips with Facebook soon, as well.

Thanks for offering to interview me. I’ve enjoyed it and hope I haven’t revealed too many secrets.

No, if anything, not enough! :)

Thanks, Roger.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

This was terrific and I enjoyed it muchly! As one who is a fan of Greece and books which are set there, I look forward to reading this. Thanks, Julia!

Julia Buckley said...

Thank you, Kaye!

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