Skip to Main Content
Header image

Alex Gough on spinning stories in the spaces of history

By Kobo • May 27, 2021Author Interviews

Alex Gough writes historical fiction adventures set in Ancient Rome.

For a limited time the first audiobook in his Imperial Assassin series, Emperor's Sword, is available exclusively from Kobo.

What are you reading lately?

I’m reading Lord of the Rings for the fourth time. I just finished watching the films, and thought it had been a couple of years since I last read it, so it was time to dig it out again. There’s so much more detail in the book than the films.

My mother, who’s 84, is just reading it for the first time. She didn’t really enjoy the Tom Bombadil part -- she thought it was boring and unnecessary -- so maybe the filmmakers were right to cut it.

How do you manage to balance historical research against crafting the story you want to tell?

I think there are a couple types of historical fiction. One kind tells the straight story of what happened, like a docu-drama. I’m thinking of highly accurate novels about Ancient Rome by Colleen McCullough, where she includes an immense amount of detail and basically tells the story of the Roman Republic from the point of view of her protagonists with very few made-up characters.

The other kind is fictional, but set against the backdrop of true happenings. My Imperial Assassin series falls into this category. So I haven’t been constrained so tightly by the facts since I’m dealing with entirely fictional characters. But I do have a rule that if the story conflicts with known historical facts, then it’s the story that has to give. That’s my rule, and I know for a lot of historical novelists, story comes first.

Where that gets interesting is where the facts are unknown and I’m free to invent. One of the nice things about writing in the time of Caracalla is that there’s little archaeological evidence since people seem to have written so much less in 200 AD than they did two centuries earlier. In each of the Imperial Assassin books, I’ve included in the appendix the entirety of contemporary writing from this period: it’s about two pages. That’s left me free to make up battles and other historical events, and to put my own spin on characters’ motivations.

How much material do you need in the historical record to jump off from into a fictional story?

Well, for example the Arcani, the secret organization Silus works for, is mentioned only once in all of the historical literature -- and even then only 100 years after they had revolted. There is literally just one mention of them ever. From there, I’ve completely made them up, essentially from that one word.

Action and thriller novels are so much about the hero making quick decisions in the moment: is there something about Ancient Rome that you think conditions your hero Silus to make different decisions than someone in the 21st century might make?

I start from the idea that we haven’t evolved in 2000 years. By and large we have the same responses to threats, to violence, to fear. Even though nobody talked about anything like post-traumatic stress until people came back from World War I with shell shock, there's no reason to think it hasn’t always been there. Certain aspects of warfare have changed over time, but things like stress disorders can arise from any traumatic and stressful situation a person has to endure.

I think fear, anxiety, love, hate -- they’re all just basic human emotions. The tricky bit is filtering them through the prism of culture. I do a lot of background reading to gain general knowledge of Roman culture to get a sense of how Romance conceive of themselves and how a proper Roman should behave.

Are you much of an audiobook listener? Do you read certain kinds of books through audio?

Yes, I have an audiobook subscription I use a lot. I’m always listening, when I’m driving or just doing things around the house. Probably half of all I read is through audiobooks.

I think I segment by author and series, less by genre. I just finished listening to the science fiction series The Expanse, which I took in entirely as audiobooks. But other series I take in as paperbacks, and others are eBooks.

What's a book that fans of Imperial Assassin and Carbo of Rome would be surprised to find on your bookshelf?

I read quite eclectically, and I think readers expect authors to read outside their field, so I’m not sure what would be surprising. But recently my daughter persuaded me to read some English classic literature, so I’ve read David Copperfield, Emma, and Northanger Abbey. I enjoyed David Copperfield, but Northanger Abbey not so much. ◼

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Emperor's Sword by Alex Gough

A desolate wasteland. A mission gone wrong. An impossible goal. Roman scout, Silus, is deep behind enemy lines in Caledonia. As he spies on a raiding party, he is abruptly discovered by an enemy chief and his son. Mounting a one-man ambush, everything quickly goes wrong and Silus must run for his life, the head of the enemy leader in his hands. Little does he know the price he will pay... As Silus is inducted into the Arcani, an elite faction of assassins and spies, he must return to Caledonia and risk everything in the service of his Caesar. The odds don’t look good. But failure is not an option.

View Audiobook

Follow us at @kobobooks on Instagram

If you would like to be the first to know about bookish blogs, please subscribe. We promise to provided only relevant articles.