Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Billings; and up and coming historical author. Read all about him in the interview below!
Q: How long have you been writing? Why did you start?
A: I have been working on my current novel for over five years, and I hope to finish in 2016. Yea!
I am a lawyer in my real life and it is often a struggle to find time to write.
I have been an avid reader all of my life. I thought of writing as something I should do, but never did, until a few years ago I was reading the biography of Bernard Cornwell. He moved with his wife to the United States and he did not have a work visa. Since he was not allowed to work at a traditional job, he started writing instead. From that came his first historical novel, Sharpe’s Eagle. I thought if he could do it when he had to, maybe I can do it because I want to.
Q: What inspires your writing? Do you have a muse?
A: I am often inspired by a sense of place. I love to find out-of-the way places that people might not have heard of before but that have a rich history. Then it seems natural to write about what might have happened there back then. One example is the floating islands (hortillonnages in French) in Amiens, France. They are a series of tiny islands that have been cultivated out of marsh land in the Somme River. It is a labyrinth of gardens and water, the history of which extends back to Roman times. I love to write about the kinds of mysteries that might have happened in places like that.
A: On the other hand, I have noticed that I am not “full of ideas” to write about, as some say they are. I feel like my ideas are buried in the subconscious and most of the time I am not aware that they are there, until I start writing. When I write, those buried ideas come to the surface. So I suppose I write to find out what is in my subconscious.
Q: You are a historical novelist. How much research goes into your projects?
A: There is more research than I expected, but I probably do more than I need to. No, I definitely do more than I need to. My idea for my current novel came from general reading in the time period of the French Revolution until several historical facts started to cluster together and I realized I had a book to write. Then the real work began of reading histories, biographies, and letters, and studying maps, lists and court cases, and anything else I could get my hands on. It has been countless hours. How much? I have not keep track, but I enjoy the research, so it has not felt like work.
Q: Why historical novels? Have you always been fascinated by history?
A: I do love history and historical research. In particular, I love literary history. The first thing I think about with respect to a particular time period is who the writers were then. My novel takes place in France and England in 1792, so I think a lot about the writers from that time and immediately prior to that time, such as Rousseau, Dr. Johnson, Fanny Burney, Cowper (I love Cowper!), and of course William Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, to name only a few. Both Wordsworth and Burney were in France during the Revolution, and Rousseau made an infamous visit to England some years before, all of which is great food for the imagination.
Q: What is the favorite place you have visited? Why?
A: If you take the time to get to know a place, anywhere is magical.
One example is the ancient walled city of York, in Northern England, that I visited many years ago. Any time there is still a massive wall around a city, going there is like a trip back in time.
CJ Sansom wrote a novel, Sovereign, set in York at the time that Henry VIII and his huge entourage visited the city. When royalty travelled, it was called the Progress, and nobles who hosted royalty on a Progress were sometimes (often?) bankrupted by the expense. I would have liked to have written that book. It is great fun.
In addition, some of my ancestors are from Yorkshire and my great grandfather sang in a choir for boys at the Minster Cathedral in York. I have a drawing of the Cathedral hanging on my wall. So York is special, for sure.
Q: When you travel does your family go with you?
A: Generally I travel with my family, and I enjoy traveling much more when I am with my family. Otherwise, traveling seems much more like just work.
Q: Tell me about your kids. Do they (or do you hope they will) love history as much as you?
A: It is easy for parents to expect their children to be projections of themselves, instead of individuals. My wife and I both love literature and culture. My children have their own unique interests and pursuits. I don’t think any of them are as fanatical about literature as I am, but they know what they are interested in and we encourage them to follow their interests.
Q: You are working on your first novel! What can you tell me about it so far?
A: I am in the middle of my second draft. But the second draft feels like a first draft, because as I wrote the first draft, I learned a huge amount about writing fiction. Now I can see much more clearly what I did wrong or what can be improved. The first draft was an apprenticeship, a great learning experience. Now I just need to finish and then celebrate!
The story goes as follows: a British spy dies while rescuing a young seventeen year old aristocrat from the French Revolution. The aristocrat, ungrateful and mortally offended to owe his life to a commoner, determines to discredit the spy’s reputation. Searching for hidden scandals, the aristocrat inadvertently uncovers a plot to overthrow the British Monarchy, pulling himself into a perilous underworld of treason and crime. Journeying from the jostling streets of London to the lonely mountains of Wales, the young aristocrat can only survive by finding the man within himself, and by finishing the work the detested spy had started.
Q: What challenges have you faced in your writing?
A: Finding the time to write is hard. I have been doing some dictating, which helps to use the time better.
Learning not to edit myself while I am writing and letting the words flow has been difficult. When I am being too critical and I want to write faster instead, I sometimes challenge myself to purposefully write as badly as I can. That gets me started, which is great.
I have also been challenged in finding the historical sources and information I need. For example, I had a scene in which my characters visited the office of the Foreign Secretary in London in 1792. I wanted the location to be authentic, but I wasn’t sure where it was back then. I knew it was somewhere in Whitehall and that the office had been recently created but I didn’t want to be vague and I didn’t want to guess. Then I found a Twitter address for an official historian for the Office of the Foreign Secretary, and they responded that the office was in Downing Street at that time, next to the Office of the First Lord of the Treasury (now Prime Minister) at 10 Downing Street. It was much easier writing the scene knowing I had the location right, and the actual location turned out to be a very significant part of the scene.
Q: If you could go back and meet any historical figure, who would it be and why?
A: There are so many I would like to meet. Perhaps the 18th century poet Samuel Johnson. He was known as one of the greatest conversationalists of all time. If you are going to go to all of the trouble of meeting someone from the past, it had better be an interesting conversation! I was also thinking of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She was also a great conversationalist, but there is a bonus that she was almost always surrounded by many other luminaries: Richard Sheridan, Charles James Fox, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess de Polignac, many others.
Q: What is something you think the world should know about you?
A: I think people should know that I like to look for the good in people. There is much more good out there than can be easily seen, and so looking for it is necessary.
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