Since the publication of A Mixture of Madness last December, I have had a little difficulty striking the flint under the tinder of book three in The Bow of Heaven trilogy. Not only have the vicissitudes of life intruded…. What kind of a word is that, anyway? Vicissitudes. For one thing, it's a word whose final "s" is almost always inextricably wrapped about the "o" in the phrase "of life." For another, it's a word whose meaning has eluded me for the past, oh, 40 years. I thought it meant a necessary intrusion, but it doesn't. It means ups and downs, an alteration or variation in the state of things. It's one of those words that shouldn't have a negative connotation, but does, like "frisbee" or "sherbet."
As I was saying, the imposition of life, planning a trip to Italy, buying a house, preparing to leave my day job to write full-time, these stressors, while they have not quite given me a case of writer's "b-word," have stolen hours and attention from the keyboard. Once you stop writing on a daily basis, once in fact, that you've left your virtual pen and ink drying in the sun for weeks at a time, is it hard to get started again? A bit, yeah. Especially when you're trying to pull together characters and chronology from two previous novels and 900 pages of narrative.
"Oh stop your bellyaching and get on with it!" That was the imagined voice of George R. R. Martin, who has a tad more to remember than I as he soldiers on trying to stay ahead of HBO.
A nice review came in last week. I mention it because of the odd sensation of vertigo I experienced just before I clicked on the link sending me to the site where I could read it. I wish I was the kind of person to whom reviews were like rain on a duck's beak, or better still, that stalwart sort who, with backbone stiff and chin held high, shuns them altogether. I'm not. I read them and try to learn from them. I will even accept your castigation and admit that when a particularly inspiring review flies across the threshold, the bellows of encouragement begin pumping harder. (Aren't true artists supposed to be consumed by their calling, eating to write, not the reverse? Okay, that's not me either. Guess I'm an untrue artist.)
Last year I was honored with the silver award in historical fiction by Readers' Favorite for The Other Alexander. A prerequisite for winning an award this year for A Mixture of Madness is a good review from the nice folks at RF. So when the email came in announcing the review's arrival, I found my toes curled over the edge of an egotistical precipice: I realized that anything short of a 5-star review would be bitterly disappointing. Yes, they did like it, it did capture five of the fiery buggers and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. But this mixture of madness (!) must stop. Should I now be crushed if AMOM doesn't do as well as TOA when the awards are handed out? For crying out loud, who gives a flying Fig Newton, as long as a few folks out there are buying the books and enjoying them?
Ahhhh. There's the rub. Awards help sell books. They get you noticed, and help do for self-published authors what the traditional publishing houses used to do for their stable of authors under contract. In the end, however, it is just too crazy-making to worry one way or the other. So my advice to aspiring authors which I must work to heed myself is this: submit your work for the reputable awards, hope your work is regarded with kindness, and keep your head down and your fingers limber. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: "Write to please just one person."
Possibly due to a stint in an English grammar school in the '60's, or to a mother who feigned an English accent whenever she was nervous, I was taught to omit it. I didn't even know until recently there was any debate about it; anyone who tossed the extraneous mark into a sentence was not only wasting a keystroke but possibly inciting to riot in as many as three or four post-graduate composition aeries around the globe. Read on and you will see, as I did, that there are occasions where the little curly devil's presence is appropriate and appreciated.
(Apologies to Billy Tucker for the black eye I gave him in 5th grade. Billy, please pass along a current address and I will remit the $2.00, with interest.)
"No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness."
I'm feeling very excellent these days. Did I tell you the world's finest and most prolific literary critic (from Dryden to Marvel Comics), Steve Donoghue, managing editor of Open Letters Monthly, was asked to write an article for the Wall Street Journal on what's new and upcoming in Roman historical fiction? No, that compliment wasn't self-serving; if you don't believe me, just read a random sampling from his blog, stevereads.com. Steve, in addition to touting mainstream authors like Mr. Saylor and company, will be mentioning me. OK, it's a little self-serving. The article will be published by mid-October. And you can bet I'll be re-posting it here.
Do writers of the WSJ read a higher proportion of Roman historical fiction than the average reading public? You know, when you think about it, I'll bet they do.
So what's that exotic, yet forbidding graphic up there all about. Can't tell you. It's a surprise.
I'll be back, as soon as I don't feel like the water inside a whistling tea kettle, but the top priority now is getting A Mixture of Madness out by the end of October. Thanks for your patience.
Carrie Slager has asked me to offer my thoughts about self-publishing, why I chose that route for my series The Bow of Heaven, and what I think about the self-publishing industry in general.
If you were an author trying to get your novel published the old-fashioned way around 2005, but wound up instead going the self-publishing route, then it’s almost a certainty you had been rejected by every traditional agent and publisher on the planet. How do I know this? From experience. The stigma clinging to the word “self-published,” much of it warranted, was palpable.
Times changed, from the publishing industry’s perspective, almost overnight. So much so that now, I don’t think it matters what Carrie or I or anyone else thinks about the rise of self-publishing. (Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, network television was up-in-arms over something called cable and pay-per-view. What? Pay for TV when you can get it for free? Yeah, like that will ever catch on.) There is no stopping this tidal wave of words, and ultimately, I think it’s a good thing.
My Dad used to tell me, “Look, son, I know you’re scared to pick up the phone to ask Peggy to the movies, but think of it this way: if you ask 100 girls for a date and 90% of them tell you no with a capital “Are you nuts?” you’ll still have dates with 10 different girls.” 100 girls? I knew Peggy. What was my father thinking? Plus, he was a charming cross between Ronald Reagan and Dean Martin. I was a cross between Woody Allen and another Woody Allen. You see my point: there may be tons more worthless words yakking for our attention, but there will also be more worthy, entertaining offerings of eloquence by authors who otherwise would have had the mahogany double doors of traditional publishing slammed in their faces.
Self-publishing has given the old chestnut “power to the people” brand new relevance. Until very recently, traditional publishers hoarded that power like Scrooge hoarded farthings. They’d peer over their pince-nez glasses and with a Dickensian sneer be very pleased to tell the rest of us just what we ought to be reading. Those days, in my opinion, are almost over. For good.
True, we are going to be wading through fields of chaff to find a few grains of wheat, and as readers, we’re going to need help sorting it all out. Traditional critics have their hands full just keeping up with those New York Review of Books titles, and I can guarantee you they will sniff and turn their backs on 99% of everything else. 89% of the time, they’re probably making the right decision. Twisted analogy coming up: but what about those ten worthy girls stamping their feet out in the cold? At least for the time being, we have to rely on all of the rest of us to know what to read and what to leave sitting on the virtual or print-on-demand shelf. Whether you hate a book or love it, review it! If there are more writers, there need to be more critics. Book bloggers and just plain old readers will see us through these new and wondrous times.
Carrie caught about 15 typos in The Other Alexander. I was appalled. Because before she got her hands on a copy, I had
Proofreading, it must be said, is not editing. The original version of The Other Alexander was so far removed from the copy you’re going to rush out and buy when you finish reading this it would be unrecognizable as the same novel. I had a lot of help. I needed a lot of help. I would love to have gained from the wisdom of a professional editor holding my hand throughout the entire process, but then I would have had to type much more slowly. And it wasn’t in the budget. But I did have several people whose opinion I trust tell me the many places I had gone wrong. The first book in the series has been out almost a year and they’re still telling me. Here it is in a laptop case: if you haven’t revised your novel from top to bottom at least three times, odds are you’re at least two times shy of getting it right.
I’m afraid I do not agree with Carrie that aspiring authors ought to go the traditional route. It is no small thing to have control over your work and to earn a far greater percentage than you ever will with the big houses. The trick is to recognize you cannot go it alone. Other eyes, preferably trained, need to vet your writing. Of course, if the main reason you’re sequestering yourself for hours at a time over the span of any number of years is to be able to go to a bookstore, point with pride to a display window full of hardcover copies of your bestseller and say, “I did that,” start polishing those query letters. And good luck with that.
For the rest of us, and by that I mean everyone minus nineteen, write the best book you possibly can, self-publish and see what happens. If it’s as good as you think it is, it will get noticed. And if the big houses come knocking, you can decide if their advance is worth the loss of control. We should all be so lucky.
One last thought: whatever you do, be sure to publish an ebook edition. Here are some stats from publisher Robin Sullivan. In May of 2011, Amazon sold more Kindle ebooks than paperback and hardcover combined. At the end of 2010, ebooks accounted for 8.3% of total trade sales; by February of last year, ebooks constituted 29.5% of the total, higher than any other category (hardcover, mass market or trade paperback).
Whether you decide to self-publish or go the traditional route, it’s a great time to be a writer … and a reader.
1. Why did you choose to focus The Bow of Heaven on Marcus Licinius Crassus? Out of all the figures in Roman history, why him?
I think Crassus may have gotten a bad rap. Rome hated nothing more than a loser, and in the eyes of historians like Plutarch and Cassius Dio, he was right up there at the top. Crassus lost the standards of his seven legions to the enemy. It took Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus) 27 years to negotiate their return, and the day they were returned to Rome there was a celebration as great as if Caesar had earned a triumph.
There are two reasons historians put forward for Crassus' ill-fated war: greed and jealousy of Julius Caesar and Pompey. There may be some truth to each of these, but in my opinion, not enough to leave the life of Riley he was living. Crassus was one of the most respected, honored elder statesman of Republican Rome. He was known as “the richest man in Rome,” so to me, the greed argument doesn’t fly. As for his generalship, if not for Crassus, Sulla’s overthrow of Marius and Cinna would have failed, and Pompey stole the “glory” of the victory over Spartacus when it was Crassus who deserved the credit. Still, I can see where, as a Roman thing, he might have wanted one more shot at military success. But of those two explanations of why he went to war, he already had plenty of one and a sufficient amount of the other. Plus, he was so old.
The average lifespan for a Roman was around 35-40 years. Let’s call it 50 if you’re wealthy and have a good HMO. Crassus was 60 when he led a host of 50,000+ (including non-combatants) on a 1,500 mile trek across the Adriatic, over Asia Minor and into the wastelands of Mesopotamia.
By the way, Roman politicians were divorcing and remarrying almost as often as they changed clothes. Marcus Crassus was married to his wife, Tertulla, for 35 years, and whatever japes may be found in the historical record, there is nothing that says they were not happy together. (There was a report Crassus was after the property of a Vestal virgin – Plutarch puts this in the very first paragraph of his Life of Crassus. Suspicious? I think so.) I believe history’s take on Crassus may be ill-founded, that the negative taste left in our mouths is the result of spurious attacks meant to demean the man who lost the standards.
There had to be something else to jolt him into leaving an idyllic, powerful, wealthy, happily married life, and I believe there was. It’s in the book.
One last point. I began writing in the third person, but quickly came upon the idea that Crassus' story would be much more interesting if it were told by one of his countless slaves. The story of Alexandros and Livia is a foil for Crassus and Tertulla, and I hope gives the novel some balance and symmetry.
2. What would you say are your biggest writing influences?
Unfortunately, I had to toss my biggest influences out the window to write this series. Imagine this kind of narrative told in the style of Woody Allen, Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut? I’ve tried to give Alexander the dry, sarcastic kind of wit I learned when I lived in England my junior year of high school. There was another choice, however.
The voice that sang to me in dulcet, sweet refrains, that urged with wily japes and introspection, to turn my narrative Elizabethan, till perforce all language lost its comprehension. Nope. ‘Didn’t go down that route either, writing as if I held a quill in my inky hand and was married to Anne Hathaway. No, the other one.
3. Where did the idea for The Bow of Heaven come from?
This is going to make no sense at all. When I saw Ridley Scott’s Gladiator with Russell Crowe, it rekindled a long-standing puzzlement over how a society as advanced as the Romans could also harbor such a wide barbaric streak. I read books, watched BBC videos and quite by accident came across Crassus, “the unknown triumvir.” What on earth was he up to? And why? The result: not a single gladiatorial combat takes place in The Other Alexander. I guess I got sidetracked. There will be none in A Mixture of Madness, either, but none will be necessary, I promise you. If I can get through it without crying, it will be a miracle. I hope my readers will hang in there with me, because the urge to enter the arena will probably overwhelm me by book three.
You can’t think ‘gladiator’ without ‘slave’ following close behind. In addition to discovering the ‘truth’ about Crassus, I also wanted to explore the nature of the relationship between slave and master. In Rome, everyone who was anyone had at least one or two. What must that have been like? How did they survive the trauma of losing everything? How could they find love and keep it when their lives were not their own?
4. Why did you choose to self-publish? What was the self-publishing process like?
Years ago, when Bow was three books jumbled all into one, I did make the rounds and kept at it until I had been rejected by every single English-speaking agent in the known world who handled historical fiction. I’m nothing if not a glutton for self-punishment. Truth to tell, they were right – the book was a mess.
I suppose I could have gone back and been successful going the traditional route once the book was revised (for the 12th time). But having control, retaining all the rights and mostly, knowing that my work need never go out of print, those are some heavy weights to throw on the independent side of the scale. And no, I didn’t throw ‘making more money’ clanging into the balance, because let’s face it, nobody who loves to write these days can be in it strictly for the money. There just aren’t that many disappointed, self-obsessed, embittered writers out there. Wait a minute ….
Smashwords made the process, in spite of their name, almost painless. Caveat: get a good cover. One of my reviewers called mine “bizarrely hideous.” Oh, the shame.
Join AiA, the Association of Independent writers (http://www.independent-authors.org/). They have an Authors Resource Guide with people who can help with every aspect of the process from A to W. Sorry, if you need something from X, Y or Z, it’s not there.
5. Would you encourage other writers to go along the same route?
I would say keep your options open. Everybody has their price (he said with dripping cynicism). I would write for the love of writing. Self-publish, and if you’re very lucky, the big boys and girls will find you. Then you’ll be in the enviable position of having to decide what it’s worth to give up complete autonomy. If you self-publish first, you won’t have to wait on pins and needles for the mail to arrive – you’ll be out there, published. So if your goal is for people other than the bedridden maiden aunt living next door to read your work, do it yourself. It’s not that hard.
Now I’m going to say something that would make Dan Poynter and Joe Konrath and dozens of other publishing gurus turn over in their graves. If they were dead. I agree that to increase the odds of becoming successful as a writer you need to market your own work, whether you’re with the big six or going it alone. But enough is enough. I didn’t start writing so that I could hop on Goodreads and Shelfari and spend my days posting on Facebook and Twitter talking up my work. (I know that’s what I’m doing right now, but did you have to point it out, right here, in front of all these people?)
Yes, that’s what’s happened, and until recently, I found myself spending more time blogging and posting than actually writing. So I’ll keep my website, post a blog every week or so, talk to nice people like Carrie, but do my very best to spend most of my time working on that next book. If I don’t move as much product, so be it. I’m not in it to win it, I’m in it to pen it. Not even close, I know. But you see where I’m going.
6. So who is your favourite figure in Roman history and why?
I guess we’re talking after Crassus, since he will be ahead by about 1,000 pages by the time I’m done with him. I guess I can’t say Colleen McCullough. Or Ray Stevens (he played Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome). This is hard! I can’t go beyond Octavian, because all my research has been within a very narrow time frame, from 90 BCE to 20 BCE. Pompey, no – he was power hungry, but when he got it he couldn’t handle it. Cicero, no again. He was brilliant, but politically his principles and positions waffled more than _________ (enter the politician of your choice, from either party). So I’m going to go with Publius Crassus, Marcus’ son. In Gaul, Caesar trusted him to lead legions, conquer less than cooperative tribes, make political decisions, all without any help from the great general - at an age when today he’d just be getting out of grad school. Hail, Publius!
If we can go a little farther afield, let’s hear it for Sappho as well. I wish more of her poetry had survived. She must have been something to be remembered through the millennia, chosen as one of the nine lyric poets in a world dominated by men.
7. Do you have any other projects planned for after you finish The Bow of Heaven series? If so, can you give us a hint as to what they might be?
I may work on a spinoff that looks at the war and its aftermath from the Parthian point of view. Or a paranormal, time travel romance with werebies (zombie wolves), if I actually want to sell anything.
8. What advice do you have for any aspiring writers out there?
Publish more than once. If I could change one thing about my writing style, it would be to type faster. Okay, I have a day job, too, so there is that. But I do believe that letting your readers know you are in it for the long haul will help you sell more books. Oh, and when you’re just about to release that second gem, give the first one away for free.
Get someone other than the bedridden maiden aunt next door to proofread your work. Well, get her if she’s any good, but get at least one other person who knows what she’s about. And if you’re self-publishing, which you should be unless you’re Ryan Gosling with an urge to write your memoirs, you need an editor. Someone you trust, who understands your vision. One pair of eyes just isn’t enough. We’re all too close to our own work to see what might be some awesome suggestions.
Are there any gorillas in the Amazon? Maybe they should have named the company Uganda. Anyway, Amazon is the silverback of publishing, and they have changed the world of writing forever. Although their policies are, at times, let’s be nice – dictatorial, the market they can reach is unrivalled. Publish there.
Definitely give Smashwords a try, too. It’s free, and they have great tools for vetting your work so that it will display correctly in e-readers. They will also distribute to just about everyone (silverbacks excepted for the most part). I also recommend publishing a trade paperback edition of your book. It adds credibility, and there are still 14 people out there without e-readers. You want to sell to them.
Lastly, thank you, Carrie, for giving me the opportunity to talk with your followers. I can always be reached at andrewlevkoff.com or at alevkoffatgmaildotcom. Now can somebody please tell me why email addresses are being written like that? I’m clearly out of the loop.
Like Gabriel, to be heard, it unfortunately falls to me to blow my own horn. The analogy is appropriate, for both the angel and I put our lips together to announce Judgment Day. His to herald the End of Time, mine to announce an award for writing. Since I don't plan to be around for the former, I have to say that of the two events, the latter has far more significance.
The nice folks at eLit Awards have given The Other Alexander, book I in The Bow of Heaven trilogy, the 2011 Gold Award for Historical Fiction.
The eLit Awards "are a global awards program committed to illumination and honoring the very best of English language digital publishing entertainment."
Remember, this coming Thursday and Friday, you can download a copy of Bow for free at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005UO0QMI.
Stephany, who is not my wife, but the person for whom I fulfill the role as husband, says I'm a synesthete. (I'm told that to use the phrase 'my wife, Stephany' would be to make me a flagrant sexist, and nobody's going to call me flagrant and get away with it. The gist of it has something to do with objectification, as if by using that phrase, I'm implying that she belongs to me. As if anything can belong to anyone! Which reminds me of that old chestnut, 'if you love something, set it free; if it doesn't come back to you of its own free will, hunt it down and kill it.' To be completely safe, let's just call her 'this person I know, Stephany.') She may be right. To me, the letter 'A' has always had a red tinge. The same way that the number '4' is dirty yellow.
I'm also an American. Now this means, other than the fact that 89% of the world's countries have been pretty much fed up with our foreign policy since 1965 which, although it is probably a conservative number, is nonetheless not germane, that every time I write the word grey, my spell checker keeps trying to tell me I'm making a mistake. If I lived in the U.K., this would't happen, would it?
The grammarist.com has this to say: "Gray is more common in American English, while grey is more common in all other major varieties of English."
Typical. You see what I'm saying about foreign policy?
Take a look at the two color swatches above. Both are obviously shades of neither white nor black. When I look at them, there is only one correct way to spell each. The color on the left is gray, and the color on the right is grey. There's an 'a' in gray, which makes it a warmer color. And grey, by comparison, is cooler, as in battleship grey. Doesn't the color on the right look like it belongs on a seafaring instrument of death? If I saw a destroyer painted gray, I just couldn't take it seriously.
Having said that, (and you know that any time anyone uses the phrase 'having said that,' whatever comes next is going to negate whatever has come before), I never spell the word grey with an 'a,' regardless of its usage. It's alway grey for this Americano. Why? Not because I think it's cooler. Get it? It might have something to do with the fact that I spent my junior year of high school in the lower sixth form of a grammar school in Middlesex, dyeing me forever and always the color of an Anglophile. Then again, it might not. It isn't, after all, a question of black or white.
At the inauguration of the Coliseum (the Flavian Amphitheater - 80 CE), 9,000 animals were slaughtered. Can we even get our 21st century heads around the mood of a people who would sit still through such butchery? It is hard to imagine. Here are some of the other animals sacrificed to the arena: bulls, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, panthers, tigers, leopards, giraffes, monkeys and ostriches. Not all were hunted; some were trained and taught to perform tricks. Others were made to fight each other, or attack criminals as a form of execution.
While the Greeks and Carthaginians saw elephants as tools for making war, the Romans found them more of a curiosity, putting them on display for the first several hundred years they knew about them. It wasn't until the first center BCE when the venationes got into full swing that they found more entertaining ways to use them. They were also revered and studied 'scientifically,' at least by a few.
"The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon." - Pliny, Natural History (VIII.1)
All right, perhaps the elder Pliny had quaffed one cup of spiced wine too many when he wrote the above, but there is something about this (usually) gentle giant that makes you want to give it a hug, isn't there? Too close for comfort? How about feed it a peanut through sturdy bars?
Do you recall the expression "pyrrhic victory," meaning both sides in a conflict suffer so badly that one can hardly be called a victor? Elephants were there when the phrase originated, wreaking havoc with Roman cavalry. One may wonder who was more terrified, the rider or the horse. This was back in 280 BCE when King Pyrrhus from the Greek city-state of Epirus invaded Italy to settle a complicated score involving most of Italy, even Carthage.
The excerpt I have included in this post is from the second book in The Bow of Heaven trilogy, A Mixture of Madness. While a fictionalized account, virtually everything in it has been documented, according to records that have come down to us from Seneca, Pliny the Elder, even Cicero. The incident with the elephants may have occurred in the much larger Circus Maximus, but I have moved it to Pompey's Theater which was, after all, the monument being dedicated. Also, the Circus was so large it is difficult to imagine the crowd being moved to any significant emotional outbreak, since for most of the audience, the action would have been taking place at a considerable distance. (By comparison, the stadium of Domitian in the picture below was half the size of the Circus Maximus.)
Theater of Pompey (dedicated 55 BCE) is in the foreground. The proscenium (with the multi-storied columns)
is to the right, the temple of Venus Victrix is at the top of the semicircular amphitheater.
Emperor Domitian's Odeon and Stadium are in the background (not built for another 125 years).
WARNING: read no further, minors, empaths or other beings weak of stomach. This excerpt is not for the squeamish.
The morning was filled with music and gymnastic competitions. When the great tragedian Clodius Aesopus took the stage, the raucous applause multiplied with such amplitude in the acoustically perfect bowl of the amphitheater that I was obliged to hold my hands to my ears. After several soliloquies, the aged actor spied his old friend, Cicero, and called upon him to ascend the stage. While this galled both consuls, there was little to be done about it without appearing ungenerous, so they were forced to endure an unscheduled performance by the orator. Cicero, like Aesopus, never missed an opportunity to perform, but he was gracious and blessedly brief, congratulating both Pompeius and Crassus (which visibly annoying the former) before taking his seat once again.
A small group of players took the stage and spent a moment tuning their instruments. The crowd grew quite. Then, from the opposite end of the stage, a woman of roughly forty years emerged from between the giant columns so quietly and unobtrusively that the audience, their attention drawn to the greater activity and noise of the musicians, did not notice her entrance. When at last a knot of those in the lower tiers saw her and recognized her, their enthusiasm swept up the curved rows until the entire amphitheater was on its feet. Galeria Copiola, the most famous of all the interlude dancers of the Roman theater, had been coaxed out of her six-year retirement by Pompeius. She had given up her art at the height of her abilities, having found that wealth, of which she had accumulated much, was preferable to fame, of which she had had enough. “Better to leave,” she is reputed to have said, “to the cry of tears than the outrage of offended jeers.” A lesson learned by far too few of the politicians who witnessed her final performance that day.
The interlude dancer provided entertainment while actors and stage hands prepared for the next act in the play, which was always a comedy, since dance and pantomime, especially of Copiola’s sprightly energy, did not lend themselves to tragedy. This performer and her talent were so beloved that when she was on the bill, she packed the old wooden theaters regardless of the play being performed. While her performance this day was as memorable as the leaps and twirls of her teens, forgive me while I allow the lady Galeria to lapse back into her early retirement so that I may rush ahead to describe the day’s finale.
Within moments after her final number, an army of stage hands began to appear between the tall columns at the back of the stage. Each pair of men carried a segment of iron fence, six feet wide by ten feet tall. Three vertical bars were topped by gold-painted spikes and weighted at the base with heavy iron plates. The workers quickly created a barrier about the entire circumference of the orchestra and stage, each segment linked to its neighbor by heavy bolts through each crosspiece. When it was done, Pompeius walked through an open section directly before us, crossed the semi-circle of the orchestra and climbed the stage. He stood inside the enclosure, dwarfed by a fifteen-foot tall statue of Venus draped in fine, green wool, the color of the goddess. The marble likeness smiled down upon him, peering over the bars that separated them.
Someone high up amongst the plebeians shouted, “Magnus, the great hunter, has captured himself!”
From the opposite side of the theater, someone else called, “At least the goddess knows on which side of the iron to stand!”
Pompeius, normally one for whom the dimmest star was more discernible than his own inchoate sense of humor, smiled and soldiered on. “On this the final day of dedication of my theater, what goddess better exemplifies the Roman spirit than Venus Victrix, embodiment of both beauty and victory. Today, I place upon the largest altar ever built in her honor a sacrifice of such proportions it will dwarf anything offering that has come before.
“The creature loxodonta africanus pharaoensis is no stranger to Romans. Our ancestors knew them, fought them, captured them, defeated them. King Pyrrhus brought them to our shores to wage war against us. Your ancestors have seen them but two or three times, always on display, docile, chained, paraded about like pets on their leashes.” The crowd began to stir, and I, too, had the sinking premonition that there are times when the best seats in the house are those furthest from the stage.
“Today,” Pompeius continued, “A story for your grandchildren. You will pass on to them the lesson first Epirus, then Carthage learned to their undoing: no army, no creature on earth is a match for Rome’s indomitable legions! Never before have the monstrous beasts you are about to see fought so close to the city walls. Not until today! I give you … the African War Elephant!” A fanfare sounded while Pompeius crossed back to his seat. As his section of fence was bolted shut behind him, from the shadows of the proscenium, a small, dark and barefoot man, wearing nothing besides a loincloth and a willow switch backed onto the stage. He spoke foreign, halting words and gently tapped his branch on something lingering in the shadows.
“Quick, Ciro, fill my cup.” Pompeius turned to dominus, noting how his wife clung to him. “Tertulla, there is absolutely nothing to fear. We rehearsed with bears yesterday, and no one received so much as a scratch.”
Crassus said, eyeing the few feet between the iron bars and where they sat, “Bears? You might as well have practiced with puppies.”
My lady did not look reassured, but even she, like the hushed crowd, was struck by the wonder of the animals being led into the light. The elephants were over ten feet tall at the shoulder, fifteen feet in length, with long, curving white tusks that flanked their drooping trunks. Their ears, thin and veined, were larger than the feathered fans that waved us cool in summer. It should have been the most terrifying site any of us had ever seen, yet their eyes looked out at us with benign intelligence and unutterable sadness. I thought I must be ascribing human feelings to the moist, black orbs which gazed at us, but when the creatures’ trainer, having lined nine of the elephants up on the left side of the stage returned to lead the second group out, there was no mistaking the tears that stained his dusty cheeks. When all were assembled, he walked up and down the line of eighteen males, reaching up to pat their cheeks, soothing them with lies. As he passed, several of the animals blew gusts of air or raised their trunks to sniff at him.
“Do not they look ridiculous?” Pompeius asked. “They are as brainless as they are massive. I know, for I hunted them in Africa back when Sulla was dictator.”
“They look vulnerable,” Tertulla said, “but I see no sign of stupidity, nor any indication of aggression. They just stand there.”
I could not restrain myself. I leaned forward to our host and said, “Aristotle has studied these creatures. He has called them ‘the animal which surpasses all others in wit and mind.’”
“And fierceness,” Pompeius said. “And fierceness.”
As if having heard us, one of the animals let out a low grumble and swung his trunk to curl it about his neighbor’s. Another down the line raised his snout and trumpeted, answered by an exclamation of astonishment that rose as one voice throughout the amphitheater. Many patricians seated in the front rows stood and clambered up the aisles to the laughter of those already seated high up. We held our ground. Pompeius rose to calm the people’s fear. “To represent our brave legionaries in today’s exhibition, behold the hunters of Gaetulia!”
Behind him, from each side of the stage, eight tall, olive-skinned men costumed in Roman military tunics, sandals and helmets entered the fabricated arena and lined up, their backs to the audience. Their shields were not Roman, but small and round, painted with designs of white and brown. If anyone looked ridiculous, it was they. There was one, nearest Pompeius on the other side of the bars whose bronze helmet bore the black and white plume of an ostrich feather. He, like all the others, balanced a long, smooth lance in his right hand, much different than our shield-piercing pilum. Ours were tipped with soft iron, meant to be thrown once to disrupt an enemy’s line, bending upon impact lest they be hurled back at our own troops. These African weapons, with their flat, leaf-shaped spearheads were designed for deep penetration.
The gates through which the Gaetulians entered clanged shut, startling the animals. They brayed and bumped into each other, clearly becoming more agitated at the sight of what they had recognized as their assailants. Their trainer had retreated to the far right corner where Pompeius had stood before the statue of Venus. The little man leaned with his back against the bars, eyes closed, hands pressed together. I doubted his prayers would be heard.
Several of the animals took a step or two forward on the stage. Others made strange and unsettling sounds. “The people must see we are their masters,” Pompeius said, pointing. “Kill them; start with that big one near the end.” He turned to Crassus, pointing straight down through the iron fence. “I’ve had a store of weapons laid in against the wall. Fear not, the hunters will never run out of javelins.”
The soldier with the ostrich plume said something to his men and stepped forward. He hefted his spear, calling out to his victim, motioning with his free hand. Stepping forward with his left foot, he threw the javelin with such speed and grace the spear cut the air as if it had been loosed from a bow. The point entered just below the animal’s left eye, deftly skirting the armament of muscle and bone to rend the soft center of its life, killing it instantly. It’s legs, lifeless pillars, buckled; the corpse crashed to the stage, snapping the spear with a stomach twisting crack as the creature hit the ground. On both sides of the fallen giant, the animals screamed and side-stepped away in terror. The elephant furthest to the right smashed into the fence with force enough to break several of the iron crosspieces, shoving the marble Venus into the column behind it. Her head broke and fell, then the rest toppled in a crash that sent the animals in a wild-eyed search for safety. The crushed trainer lay in a crumpled, lifeless heap, forever spared the sight of the carnage to come.
The audience’s cheers were ecstatic.
Rather than charge and retaliate, the elephants appeared desperate to escape. Javelins were now being flung at them by all the hunters. Believing the place where they had entered the arena was the way to their salvation, they bunched about at the rear of the stage, crying out as they pressed against the bars, being wounded all the time in their flanks and legs. Their grunts and cries, pitiful wailing notes were pressed indelibly into every ear. Tertulla turned away. Our eyes met and I could see the water welling brightly in hers. The crowd grew silent, their jubilation extinguished.
Suddenly the elephants turned and rushed away from the rear of the stage, stampeding toward their executioners, stumbling over the bodies of those already dead or dying. At first we could not discern the reason why they reversed direction, but then we saw that men with torches had appeared at the rear of the theater, jabbing with their flames, denying the stars of this last day of celebration their exit.
“Madness!” Crassus shouted, grabbing his wife. “Stay here, Alexander. Be my witness.” They were already up and moving. Truth to tell, had I wanted to flee, my legs would have betrayed me.
The Gaeulians circled round to the right. The elephants, only ten remaining now, ran headlong toward the curving fence, straight at us. Iron had never looked so flimsy. Pompeius crouched horrified, his hands clutching the wreath on his head. His guards and lictors huddled about him.
The animals’ flanks were exposed, and the hunters loosed a barrage of javelins that thumped and tore into their thick hides. Instinctively fleeing from the source of these new wounds, the victims collided with their brothers, the entire herd smashing headlong into the barrier just beyond us. The fence folded outward over the first rows of seats like a jaw dropping. I saw two men knocked flat and bloody by the iron bars; there may have been more. These were not senators, who had already fled to higher ground, but fools looking for a better view.
Voices rose behind us, a new noise of protest. People were on their feet, demanding that Pompeius stop the killing. When their cries went unanswered, their shouts turned to curses. A cup of wine careened off my shoulder, splashing Magnus’s back with scarlet.
One beast separated from his fellows and turned toward the hunters. Blood stained his hide black. His ears flared in defiance; he trumpeted with rage and stumbled forward, cutting off his attackers’ retreat. He was driven to his knees, but reaching out with his trunk, snatched a shield from a screaming African and flung it into the stands. It arced high overhead, as if the animal had been trained to perform a trick. His head sank to the ground and the hunter drove his spear into the neck at the base of the elephant’s skull. 25,000 groaned as one.
Only five of the original eighteen animals were left alive, all with mortal wounds. They gathered at the front of the orchestra, facing a stunned and horrified crowd, seeming to plead with them directly with raised trunks and cries of the most pitiful nature. The audience jeered the hunters and hurled curses down upon Pompeius. Many stormed from the theater, their tears mingling with vows never to return again. As the remaining elephants’ strength gave out, they sank to their knees, their breathing rattled and labored, yet powerful enough to blow dust up to sparkle in the afternoon sun. The hunters approached, spears held high. Uncomprehended shouts of “cowards” and “barbarians” pelted them from above; the garbage flung down upon them was better understood. The chief Gaetulian shook his spear at the Romans, returned their epithets in his throaty tongue and ran to stab the nearest elephant for spite. As he raised his javelin, the animal rose up on his front legs, using the last of his strength in a final attempt to get away. The hunter with the ostrich plume moved in close enough to touch the beast and grabbed his spear with both hands for a killing thrust to the heart. But he was too late. The elephant moaned, one of the saddest sounds I have ever heard, and died. The hunter jerked back to avoid the rolling corpse, but he wasn’t fast enough. One foot was caught by the dead animal as it rolled on its side. Off balance, the headman squealed and jabbered as he fell backwards, kicking with his free leg at the grey wall descending upon him. I could not hear the bones of his legs break, but I could see his eyes bulge like eggs as the lower part of him was squeezed up into the upper half. His countrymen rushed to his aid, pulling his arms to free him from an embrace with no release. He screeched at them until the wave of his jellied insides pushed their way out his mouth. Then he was silent. It was the first time I had heard the crowd cheer since that same man had killed the first elephant.
While this was happening, Pompeius left the theater under guard, without comment or apology. Eighteen elephants died that day, along with any hope that Pompeius' millions had bought the renewed love of the people he had so wished to purchase.
A gladiator crying for succor, running from his opponent would be jeered and reviled; but let the mirror of that same behavior be exhibited by these lumbering, implausible creatures and the empathy of the crowd is aroused. There is no logic to it, except perhaps this: the elephants could easily have overpowered the hunters and crushed them. That they appeared to spare them, offering their own lives instead, was seen as noble.
I shall never understand these Romans.
Recently, Amazon began its KDP Select program (Kindle Direct Publishing), whereby members who pay a fixed fee per year can "borrow" ebooks for free for as long as they like. These people are called Amazon Prime members; does that mean the rest of us are subprime? Amazon throws at least $600,000 into the pot each month and splits it up between the authors who have signed on. Authors are also entitled to list their books for free for 5 days during the 90-day contract. I'll get to the catch in a minute.
Amazon obviously thinks listing books for free is a big deal, otherwise why would they tout it as a benefit to joining KDP Select? Something tells me they have more to gain than the authors who publish on their site. How do I know this? It's easy to get more than somebody who is getting nothing. Unless someone out there can show me something I'm missing, I can only see two valid reasons to (temporarily) list a book for free: 1) to raise your ratings on Amazon so that potential buyers find your book more easily; the effect has a short lifespan, but if it keeps the book 'visible' after the freebie long enough to make some sales at money, so much the better. And 2) if you're about to publish the second novel in a series, making the first book free may generate sales for the latest arrival.
Now about that catch: authors who join KDP Select must not publish their ebooks anywhere else. As if Amazon wasn't big enough already. By the way, is the company name a reference to size, as in the river, or are they a company of half-naked warrior women? I hazard a guess it's the former, but wish I was wrong. So. Amazon is not content being Amazonian; the publishing pachyderm's pernicious plan is to pulverize any remaining competition under its prodigious paw. (Sorry, I got carried away.)
Which is why I feel guilty, and something of a traitor. I first published The Bow of Heaven on Smashwords, the upstart house that distributes to all booksellers, as well as selling ebooks from authors the world over, giving our lonely profession an outlet of great artistic freedom. At first, I naturally scorned any attempt by Amazon to squash this helpful little firm who walked me carefully through every step necessary to ensure that my book would upload and be viewed properly on all the world's e-readers.
Six month's later, Amazon - 6,000 downloads, Smashwords - 250, or about 24:1. Need I say more? Apparently. I have this theory that writers are egoists, and though they slave alone in the dark, crave fame and fortune just like any other artist. Well at least I am, do. And I want to reach the largest possible audience. I caved, and decided to try KDP Select, but my altruistic self, that wee, small voice of ethical fair play overwhelmed by capitalistic greed on an almost quotidian basis, is hoping the free price offering, of which I am taking advantage of March 15 and 16, will bomb horrifically. Even if a bunch of penny-minding readers throng to get a book which would have only cost them 299 pennies more to buy at retail (which makes every single one of them my loyal and cheap fan), if the ploy doesn't boost my ranking high enough and for a long enough period of time to generate more real sales, I ask you, what good is it? (Well, that reason number 2 above seems pretty self-explanatory, but aside from that.)
Wish me luck. Or don't. I'm on the fence.
At least when it comes to ancient history, it's hard to avoid falling into faux-Shakespearean flowery. Unfortunately, much of our preconceptions about the tone of historical fiction comes from the movies, accents aside. Although it's been over 50 years and I still can't forget the masterful work Tony Curtis did bringing a little bit of Brooklyn to Spartacus.
Myself, I strive for a cross between Derek Jacobi and Peter O'Toole. (Only partially kidding.)
Any writer of books about ancient Rome is bound to get it wrong. Unless we're writing in Latin and have a burning need to sell in the single digits. Here's my take: if it's a whopping great tale, getting the tone 'right' is less of a concern. Slightly.
The Universal Utility of "asdf"
Does this sound familiar? You're writing merrily away on your next great oeuvre when you suddenly realize a particular word in the sentence you just wrote does not quite fit. There's a better word. You feel it in your bones, but you just can't quite put your finger, or your overworked and overworded brain on it. Roget has been thumbed, the ceiling has been scrutinized, the pacing has been aerobic, but all to no avail. Before you know it, it's time for lunch! And you're stuck. Patience, I am about to digress.
Many great writers have weighed in on this topic, notably Gustave Flaubert, who led a never-ending search for le mot juste. "When I discover a disagreeable assonance or a repetition in one of my sentences," he said in 1876, "I can be sure that I'm floundering around in something false. By dint of searching, I find the right expression, which was the only one all along, and at the same time the harmonious one. The word is never lacking when one is in possession of the idea." All right, Gus, watch your step or you might fall off that lofty pedestal on which you've deposited yourself.
My favorite teacher on the art of writing, however, is none other than Mark Twain. Mr. Clemens had quite a bit to say on the subject. For instance: "To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself...Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph." - Letter to Emeline Beach, 10 Feb 1868
"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice." - Letter to D. W. Bowser, 20 March 1880
Sounds like he was talking to Hemingway, doesn't it?
Here's more: "Substitute "damn" every time you’re inclined to write "very." Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
And finally, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning."
But we were talking about what happens when that one glittering phrase, that one perfect distillation of thought that needs to fly from brain to paper just won't leave the runway. That's when I haul out good old asdf. Here's a sentence, spoken by the ancient and cantankerous Alexander as he narrates Book II of The Bow of Heaven: "The short lines, a poem of excess, asdf my reluctant attention back to the rash and idiotic blunder I had committed only hours before in a moment of irretrievable optimism."
I could not think of that one perfect word, not for love or money. So I left it, and kept going, working on another scene altogether. Later, when the muse decided to plop her elegant derriere down beside me for another five minutes, she whispered in my ear, "gulled." Brilliant! I cried. (I can say it was brilliant, you see, because I didn't think of it, it was that lady draped in enough stone-washed linen to make Tim Gunn exclaim, fingers pressed with sincerity against his chest, "Dear, at all costs you must discourage the judges from using that word that is the absolute kiss of death: 'costumey.'")
There have been times, when, in order to keep writing, I have had to leave entire scenes for another day. Which is why I write asdf in bold to help me find the places that need polishing. Excuse me, a young lady has just entered the sanctum sanctorum, which in my case is our laundry room (seriously); she is whispering something Alexander just told her. It's perfect, and I have to go write it down before I lose it.
Four Stars (out of Five)
“A word of advice,” cautions Alexander, the narrator and hero of Andrew Levkoff’s The Bow of
Heaven. “If you can possibly avoid it, do not get shot.” Such wry asides are plentiful in this tale
of a Greek student “harvested and swept up to feed Rome’s insatiable appetite” for the slaves
“upon which that lumbering beast’s survival depended.”
Levkoff has chosen to tell the story of Marcus Licinius Crassus—the richest man in
Rome during his day, the original benefactor and sponsor of Gaius Julius Caesar, and the
commander who oversaw the campaign to put down the revolt of Spartacus—through the eyes of
a slave. The novel focuses more on the trials and tribulations of those who serve a great house
than on the triumphs and tragedies of those who rule it. Whole chapters are devoted to romantic
and other interpersonal relationships among the staff, while Crassus’s greatest moments—the
Spartacus campaign, the Catiline Conspiracy—are skipped over and told as afterthoughts.
Despite this rather unusual and at times unsatisfactory tactic (at least to fans of Roman
historical fiction), Levkoff does manage to paint his readers a very believable—though perhaps
too sympathetic—portrait of a man who was once the most formidable power in the ancient
world. Levkoff does so while keeping the audience entertained with the soap opera bubbling
about in the kitchens, work rooms, and slave quarters of Crassus’s villa.
The slave Alexander is Crassus’s confidant and conscience and, at times and quite
literally, also his whipping boy. Levkoff does not let his readers forget that while Alexander
comes to lead a life of privilege and comfort due to his master’s generosity, the Greek remains
“but still a slave.” How Alexander is treated by the petulant and pompous Caesar, for example,
speaks volumes on the lives and character of both men.
Thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and cleverly staged, The Bow of Heaven is a
unique and engaging look at Rome in the first century before the Common Era. It is also the first
in a series, the second of which is previewed in the final pages of the novel. Book Two will focus
on Crassus’s ill-fated attempt to conquer Parthia, a disastrous campaign that humbled Rome, cost
the great man his life, and thus removed the one block that kept Pompey Magnus and Julius
Caesar from tearing the republic apart. If Levkoff continues the excellent work he demonstrates
in Book One, Book Two is likely to be an even better read than the already superb The Bow of
Heaven. - Mark G. McLaughlin
I joined the site and wrote the administrator that while my book was cheap, it was 299 pennies more expensive than free and parenthetically, the book was under copyright. To their credit, they did the right thing and pulled the book from their offerings.
Next, I created an alert for "free ebooks" AND "the bow of heaven" OR "levkoff." We're not going to stop our blood, sweat and tear-soaked worked from being hijacked, but here at least was one instance where vigilance was rewarded. Here's another tip: if you have the time, go to a site that is a clearinghouse for free ebooks, like this one, and search for your name and/or title.
I was hoping to get the young man who wrote the review to post it on Amazon, but I haven't heard back from him. How do I know the reviewer is a young man? If I told you his screen name, you'd probably agree. Since it's unlikely to appear anywhere else, here is what he said:
Alexander is a Greek philosophy student who becomes caught up in the war between Rome and Athens. Captured, he is given as a gift to Crassus, for his role in the conquest. Alexander first fights against the indignities of being a slave. But his sharp mind and caring nature win out and he eventually comes to love his master and the others in his household. I was glad that Crassus was portrayed as a many-layered individual and not the cliched slave-owner. I found myself easily caught up with these characters.
I was intrigued by Alexander's point of view. Seeing the Roman republic through a Greek's perspective is a unique way to shine light on both its strengths and weaknesses. Levkoff does a great job of including bits of Roman life like bathing or dining practices in an easy way that adds texture without feeling pedantic.
I wish the gentleman would write me back. I'd still like to thank him. If you're out there, no hard feelings. Honest.
Then she inquired, "How are you marketing your book?" I replied with the usual, "I do nothing but market - website, blog, twitter, FB, email, phone; I hardly have time to work on the next novel."
She tapped her paperwork on the table surface to square all the corners and, in a tone of conspiratorial comradeship said, "Yes, even real writers have to do that now."
I loaded up my verbal 12-guage, my imitation of Captain Queeg now complete save for the metal balls (is that significant?), but in the end smiled as if she hadn't just slapped me hard across the kisser. After all, I didn't want her throwing my books into the incinerator after I left.
What's a poor indie author to do? Like another maligned Caesar and his followers, played to a fault by Andy Serkis, our day is coming. Ooh-ooh.
Alexander is astute, well-educated and brimming with caustic wit, but he can’t seem to remember the golden rule of slavery: keep your head down and your mouth shut. No wonder more than one person in the house of Marcus Crassus wants to see this former Greek philosophy student dead.
Through accident and intervention, Alexander manages to survive, but is he willing to take the proffered hand of the one ally he wants desperately to despise – his owner? Every boon and advancement accepted from Crassus is an acknowledgment that his former life is gone. Yet how can he resist? Crassus is a good man, for a Roman.
At last, Alexander realizes that accepting his condition is the only way to recoup the little freedom left him. He willingly opens his eyes to his new life … and immediately falls in love with Livia, a fellow servant he’s never allowed himself to see. But romance for a slave is a fragile thing, especially when tragedy befalls the Crassus household in the guise of Gaius Julius Caesar and his insatiable ambition.
Alexander has won the ear of Crassus, but can a slave keep a master of Rome from making a choice which will topple the foundations of an empire?
THE BOW OF HEAVEN, BOOK ONE: THE OTHER ALEXANDER is a historical novel of ancient Rome that takes a fresh look at a titan of the era through the eyes of a slave who serves him. Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor of Open Letter Monthly says, "'The Bow of Heaven' is superb: a beautifully crafted, electrifying example of just how good historical fiction can be. Don't miss it."