Last winter, I participated in a book-signing at a local independent book-store. While taking a break to view the different books in the store, I saw a cover next to my own trilogy that I'd seen on Amazon before. Curious, I picked up the book, opened it to the title page, and discovered that the author had signed the copy. That surprised me, as I had assumed that the book and author had come from the UK. But when I flipped to the author's bio, I was stunned when I saw where she lived: ROANOKE, VIRGINIA!!!
No way. There was another writer of ancient Roman fiction in Roanoke--my own community? And I didn't even KNOW?
As soon as I got home, I looked up the author online. BOOM. It was really true. Little old Roanoke was home to not one, but TWO Roman authors, and I knew I had to email Amanda Cockrell to tell her that I existed--that there were TWO of us! Ha!
Now Amanda and I have connected through our books and mutual love of Roman history. And while visiting her home and having a grand tour of her office, I had another shock in store... Forty years ago, I had read the first of her Centurions series. Never in a million years would I have guessed that 1) I'd eventually meet her 2) Live in the same town 3) Be a fellow author of ancient Roman fiction!!!
This week, I'd like to introduce my readers to my new-found friend Amanda and her books. And what better way is there to do that, than simply interview her? So readers--it's my delight to introduce you to Amanda Cockrell, who writes as Damion Hunter!
A Chat with Amanda Cockrell
Amanda, you’ve been writing Rome for a very long time. Which book of yours still resonates with you the most? And why?
I think my favorites so far are Barbarian Princess, the second in The Centurions series, and the new one, Shadow of the Eagle, which is the first in a new series called The Borderlands. They probably dive most deeply into the folklore of Britain, which is always my favorite thing. When there is a chance to use my characters’ very real beliefs in the gods and various other supernatural entities to deepen the sense of place, I am always happy, and tend to skirt a bit on the edges of “Are they really real? well they might be, I will write as if they are,” although to paraphrase Brenda Clough, another writer of historical fiction, I strive to keep the cloven hoof of the fantasy writer tucked discreetly beneath the hem of my stola.
What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to writing about an ancient civilization like Rome?
It is probably resisting the urge to put twenty-first century thoughts in a first century head. These people are all the products of their world, not ours, and their beliefs and expectations are their own.
A feminist character is just not plausible. A mistreated wife isn’t taking to the streets for women’s rights, she’s more likely figuring to how to poison him. Women had very circumscribed lives, although less so in the provinces, which is why I tend to make my main female characters provincial women rather than Roman.
I find the bloodiness of the games revolting and can allow my characters to do the same because some did. Seneca said they rotted a man’s character or something to that effect. But he just disapproved of them. He never suggested they be abolished. And honestly, I don’t know how far we’ve come from that, with dog fighting and bull fighting still going on, and people less than a hundred years ago turning out to watch lynchings and public hangings.
There is also the issue of slavery. Slavery was universal across the ancient world, but slavery in Rome was a whole different thing from the slavery of the antebellum US. Mainly because it was not race-based but a matter of circumstance – captive of war, child of a slave, condemned for some crime, even sold by your parents. But a slave (other than a condemned one) could be freed, and often could buy their own freedom, and many freedmen rose to great power in Rome. Very often wealthy families’ accountants and tutors were slaves; they were educated and valuable. So altogether a different animal. Making all that understood to the reader without belaboring it with an “expository lump” takes some care.
When plotting, is there a particular strategy you use to come up with a plausible story? How do ideas come to you?
For Shadow of the Eagle, I took the historical account of Agricola’s campaign for Scotland in 78-84 and that gave me a framework right there. For Coyote Weather, my new novel about the Vietnam war era, it was the fault line that the Vietnam War laid across American society, parting people who should have been together, yanking plans for the future out from under people, shaking up all the other discontent that was brewing at the time.
Then I put my characters in that time and place and think about what they would do about it. How their own backstory drives their actions. For Faustus in Shadow of the Eagle, I found that he really didn’t have enough to trouble him other than fighting a war that (unlike my hero in Coyote Weather) he absolutely wanted to fight. So I gave him something else to contend with at the same time, something personal.
Another plotting issue for the Roman books is that a good historical novel actually creates the same kind of secondary world that fantasy requires – a fully realized time and place. And I am picky about contradictory stuff and continuity issues once I have done that. So because The Borderlands crosses the time frame and some of the setting of The Centurions, I am being very careful not to change anything that was presented in The Centurions. For instance, Correus, my hero of The Centurions is briefly in Britain during Barbarian Princess at the same time as Faustus, the hero of The Borderlands, is there at the beginning of Shadow of the Eagle, both posted to the same legion. I have been careful to put them in different cohorts, make sure the names of people like the legate and the surgeon of the legion stay the same, etc. As a reader I am always annoyed when something in one book contradicts something in another by the same author, even if they aren’t in the same series. My theory is that you only get to create one set of imagined “facts” for the same historical period.
So many of your main characters are men. Has it been difficult “thinking” Roman—especially when it comes to battle scenes?
My main characters have only been men in the Roman books, and that because the books are military adventure (plus a good deal of family saga so there are major female characters, they just don’t get as much screen time) and that really means the heroes must be male. I am not sure how I do it, but I have been told by men who have served in Afghanistan and elsewhere that I have got what combat is like off the battlefield as well as on. I think it is the fact that these characters are not unmoved or unmarked by battle that makes them ring true to these readers. As for the fight scenes themselves, that is the result of a lot of research and about ten years spent hanging around with the Society for Creative Anachronism, watching their battles, and listening to the fighters talk. They are mostly into medieval combat but you can learn a lot from watching them.
We’ve all got favorite writers who have sparked excellence in our minds. Who does Amanda Cockrell like to read on a rainy day?
My most recent favorites:
Hild by Nicola Griffith, a seventh century novel about the early life of the woman who became St. Hilda of Whitby.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, a novel about WWI in Britain.
Both are such beautifully realized worlds, utterly believable, rich in period detail, and with characters that are equally well developed, for whom it is impossible not to care. What sinks me deep into a book is always character and sense of place.
I know how much you love writing Rome. But is there another period that tantalizes you—one you would like to tackle someday? If so, please tell!
My next book is actually set during the Vietnam War, covering 1967-1972, and I am thrilled to have finally got the thing into publishable shape and to have found a home for it at Northampton House Press. It will be out in April. It’s called Coyote Weather and it’s set partly in Virginia and partly in California in the town where I grew up. I have written a lot of other historical fiction from pre-Columbian to Victorian and Edwardian, but this one was the hardest, mainly because to me it is not historical fiction at all but fiction set in the years of my early twenties. And the pitfall there is that it is very hard to tell what is interesting to a reader fifty years later and what is only interesting to the author. That’s what you need an editor for, and I am lucky to have found a wonderful one. This is something I have always told writing students who were working on autobiographical stuff, and this book has proved it to me in spades. I should add that it’s not autobiographical, although a few of the experiences are mine, as is the era.
You’re now working on a series. Can you share a few details of what it entails and what can readers expect from these books?
The Borderlands begins with Julius Agricola’s campaign to conquer Scotland and bring the entire island of Britain into the Empire. That’s covered in the first of the series, Shadow of the Eagle, and from there my hero goes off on other adventures that are less historically documented. Which is to say we don’t know much detail about Roman Britain right after 84 CE when Agricola was recalled to Rome and the military strength of Britain began to be drawn off to shore up problems on the Danube frontier -- a campaign that was the subject of The Border Wolves, the last in The Centurions series. So I have to think of things that might have happened and are plausible enough to build on. We do know that almost all of Agricola’s forts in Scotland were abandoned by a few years afterward, including a legionary fortress that was still only half built. So the second book, Empire’s Edge, concerns that slow falling apart of Rome’s grip on the north.
There is also an adventure in Ireland in which my hero Faustus unofficially helps to restore an exiled Irish prince to the High King’s throne. The prince, Tuathal Techtmar, is historically documented, although his exact time frame varies in historical supposition from Vespasian’s reign to Hadrian’s. This book is somewhere in the middle of that period. Rome had nothing to do with the campaign (Agricola had looked longingly at Ireland but never had the chance to actually try to take it) so Faustus’s participation is not with his legion but with a war band of mercenaries recruited by Tuathal for the purpose.
That’s the historical background. But it’s really Faustus’s story of finding his own identity. He is the son of a provincial Roman farmer and the British woman who he bought as a slave to be his housekeeper and then freed in order to marry her. Faustus’s father dies in debt and so he sells the farm and joins up. The army and Britain will shape the rest of his life. He is haunted, occasionally literally, by the shade of his disapproving father, and he finds that his mother’s roots in Britain go rather deeper than he had bargained for.
Enjoy a slideshow of Amanda's office!
I’ve had the pleasure to have visited your office—your writing room. It’s chock full of so many wonderful things… books, maps, peg-boards, posters, art… When you’re researching, what part of that room is your most valuable asset? Ready, set, GO!
Probably the big two-sided map board that keeps me from having to unfold giant maps every five minutes or sit at the desk draped in them like an animated tent.
My shelves of research books certainly, including the little cast iron toast rack where I keep the two or three that I am working with at the moment.
And of course the computer with its access to the internet, which is a researcher’s best tool ever for obscure questions:
When did the Romans begin using window glass?
What was mourning clothing in ancient Rome?
Are swans native to Britain?
And for general inspiration, the bookshelves that my husband built me to hold all the books I have written, a reminder that I have done this before and can do it again despite arriving at the section of my outline that essentially reads Insert plot here.
And the little Roman people that a dear friend sent me to inhabit them.
What part of Roman history is your favorite? Is there a particular historical individual you wish you could have dinner with? Please share!
I like best the years from 69 CE when Vespasian came out on top at the end of the horrible civil war called the Year of Four Emperors, through 192 when Commodus was assassinated and we get the Year of Five Emperors. That period was a fairly peaceful era for the Empire, in terms of its government, and I like to write (and read) books that are about the lives of ordinary people in that world, rather than actual historical figures or palace intrigue.
I think I would like to have dinner with Julius Frontinus, who was the governor of Britain before Agricola, a talented general as well as an engineer who wrote extensively about military tactics (that work is lost, alas) and the waterworks of Rome, and was Commissioner of the Aqueducts under Nerva. There really wasn’t anything that didn’t interest him, and he seems to have gotten along with every emperor, which is something of an accomplishment.
What is your favorite part of being an author?
Tossup between writing and having a book published. Writing a book that doesn’t sell is dispiriting, and I have had some of those. But also writing is the only thing that I actually do well. All of my day jobs have been some sort of writing: newspaper, radio ad copy, promotional stuff, academic writing, editing, or teaching writing. It’s really all I know how to do, and I didn’t love all of it. But writing fiction is a pure pleasure, the one thing that never bores me.
All About Amanda
Amanda Cockrell grew up in Ojai, California, a wonderful place where one could ride one’s horse down Main Street and there was a hitching post outside the library. It was a bedroom town for Hollywood, full of writers and actors and directors, so there was always something going on, and famous people’s discarded trousers tended to end up in the local thrift shop. Her father was a screenwriter and her mother a screenwriter and novelist.
After a checkered career as a newspaper feature writer and a copywriter for a rock radio station, she earned a master’s degree in English and creative writing from Hollins University and is managing editor of that university’s literary journal, The Hollins Critic. She also had the privilege of teaching creative writing at Hollins for many years. She lives with her husband, Tony Neuron, and a substantial assortment of dogs and cats, in Roanoke, Virginia.
Writing as Damion Hunter, she is the author of seven Roman novels: the four-volume series The Centurions, concluding with The Border Wolves; The Legions of the Mist and its sequel The Wall at the Edge of the World; and Shadow of the Eagle, the first in The Borderlands, a new Roman series. The second in the series, Empire’s Edge, will be published in April 2023.
As Amanda Cockrell, she is the author of numerous other novels, including three set in a fictional version of her beloved home town: the forthcoming Vietnam era novel Coyote Weather (April, 2023); Pomegranate Seed, a novel of the Hollywood blacklist; and the young adult novel What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay. She is also the author of The Deer Dancers and The Horse Catchers trilogies, set in the pre-Columbian Americas.
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