Interview with Robert Fabbri

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002

1. First of all, many thanks for talking to us - I love the Vespasian series, and the way you strike a balance between pace and detail. However, how difficult was it for you to develop your writing style? And as Tribune of Rome was your first published novel, did you ever worry that your writing skills might develop through the series to the point where you'd be itching to rewrite any earlier books?

I didn’t really think about my writing style when I started the first book but now I am aware of it changing – for the better, I hope. Now that I’m half way through the seventh book I can see a big difference in style to Tribune of Rome but not to the extent that I would want to rewrite it; however, if I could, I would certainly love to tweak it a bit.

2. Vespasian is an inspired choice of character - through him you can effectively tell the story of the early Roman Empire through a string of very familiar names: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Was this an entirely intellectual choice, or did something about the man appeal to you before you even began to consider writing the series?

It was a mixture of the two plus one other ingredient. I wanted to tell the story of that period and Vespasian was the obvious man to take, having survived and thrived in those dangerous reigns. I also find him a very sympathetic character in that he had a great sense of humour and didn’t abuse power more than, say, the average mafia don, which in Roman terms is acting with restraint. Therefore I could make him a reasonably likeable character to the modern reader’s eyes without taking away his essential Roman characteristics, a lot of which would not be approved of in this age and in this part of the world. The third ingredient was that his career took him almost everywhere in the empire so the backdrop of the story will always be changing.

3. Before I read historical fiction, I presumed that it must be easy work - after all, the story is supposedly already provided for you. However, I've since discovered the most wonderful characterisations and historical insights provided by various HF authors. Does history therefore become as much of a hindrance as a benefit with developing story and character? Conversely, how do the gaps in the record affect this process - welcome space to take your own lead, or a time to panic a little?

The history is very important to me and not at all a hindrance. I work on the assumption that if the plot does not fit with a fact then it’s not an inconvenient fact it’s the wrong plot. So provided all the known facts are used then I feel free to do anything I like with the plot and characterisation. Gaps in the record are just give me more freedom.

4. I loved the way you were sympathetic to Caligula, and it was a joy to read about his development and downfall. And yet you were unforgiving to Messalina, wife of Claudius. How difficult do you find it to balance what you read from the historical sources, and your own personal insights, to shape the characters that you write?

It must always be remembered that the main primary sources were written after the demise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty; therefore, to a certain extent, they must be seen as adverse propaganda so the true nature of these historical figures can only be guessed at. Whilst this might seem to be a shame for historians it is very liberating for historical novelists as they are far freer to put whatever slant they wish to on the fictionalised character. I enjoy creating a balance between what we think we know about a character and what I need from them in order to make my fiction work.

5. I do very much enjoy picking up some of the historical foreshadowing in the series. How much of a challenge do you find it to try and write these in, so that their development later on will not surprise us? I don't mean simply public figures, but also behaviours and personality traits that will later be expressed? Vespasian's tight-fisted is a great point of note, as well as his admiration for Claudius's works - and, of course, his learning from Antonia's scheming freedmen.

I’ve always believed in working with what I’ve given myself – never pull a rabbit out of the hat, as it were. So I always try and seed an idea early, if possible in a previous book. For example in book 3 Poppaea Sabina believes that Vespasian and Sabinus were responsible for killing her father – which they were – and swears that she will have some sort of revenge. I use this to explain in book 7, The Furies of Rome, why her daughter, again Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s empress, hates Vespasian. And then, what use will be made of Alexander’s breastplate? What about Flavia’s worship of Isis? Where will Vespasian hide when he displeases Nero in book 8? And who is The Cripple who is mentioned in book 7 and appears in book 8?

6. You've said that originally the series was going to be six books, but now that it may become 8 or 9. Are you any closer to deciding yet? :) Additionally, you've also mentioned about finishing the series not long after Vespasian becomes emperor, but isn't there a part of you that wants to explore a little more about his ten-year rule? Is there not even the teensiest temptation to at least cover Titus? And do you even think about what project might appeal after this series has been completed?

I think the series will end up as nine books; I must stop expanding the stories! I won’t take Vespasian’s story any further than the triumph because it’s very dull once he becomes emperor: lots of financial reforms and taxes. Titus is tempting as I could pick up his story from the moment that Vespasian leaves Judaea; that way we will get the fall of Jerusalem. I’m certainly considering it. As to after this project, I do have a couple of ideas but that’s as far as I’ll go for the moment.

7. One of the more interesting aspects of the series is that you need to take account of the rise of Christianity, and the Siege of Jerusalem. While you're clearly looking to write only from an historical perspective, do you ever feel an unspoken pressure to write anything with a religious connection more sympathetically? Obviously you haven't done so with Paullus, but do you worry at all that how you portray the Jewish Revolt might require a little more delicacy than Josephus?

No; fundamentalist religion has caused – and still is causing – so much suffering in the world so I see no reason why it should be treated delicately. A fanatic is a fanatic and should be shown as such.

8. You've mentioned before that you're writing historical fiction, not historical fantasy - and yet there are mystical elements in the series. Aside from Suetonius's portents at birth, there was also the phoenix at Siwa, Joesph of Aramathea’s actions in the grove, the cold dread of Myrrdin's druids, and perhaps we'll also see Tacitus's miracles in Alexandria. Do you ever fear that moving from an entirely rational path moves you more into fantasy, or is it simply the case of keeping faithful to the historical sources?

Both Tacitus and Cassius Dio describe the Phoenix so as far as I’m concerned that is history, not fantasy. Tacitus also tells us that the druids caused the legionaries attacking Mona to become rooted to the spot by in fear of the druids so I take that literally. As to Joseph and Myrrdin, yes, perhaps I did stray a little into fantasy there, in some people’s eyes, but only if you believe that the world is purely physical, chemical and biological and there is no room for the supernatural in this pleasingly scientifically pure state. Interestingly all the one star reviews I’ve got on amazon for book 5 were from people who cannot countenance the possibility of the supernatural. I, however, have no problems with the supernatural and nor did the Romans, so what I portrayed would not have seemed like fantasy to Vespasian but, rather, reality and, therefore, totally believable.

9. I have to ask a cheeky question: was the naming of Vespasian V as Masters of Rome made by yourself or your publisher, to help attract readers familiar with Colleen McCollough's series of the same name? Or was it entirely incidental - the most appropriate title for a story packed with intrigue and a struggle for power?

It was my choice of title because it is relevant to the story. Having read and loved Colleen McCollough’s fantastic series as soon as each one came out and been greatly inspired to try to write my own because of it, I thought that it was appropriate to give her a nod. I felt that I could use Masters of Rome because it was the series title and not that of an individual book. If it also attracts fans of her series to pick up my books then you won’t find me complaining, but that was not the original intention.

10. It seems to me that Roman historical fiction continues to expand as a genre. We have traditional greats such as Robert Graves, Richard Harris, and Colleen McCollough, through Lindsey Davis to modern names such as Conn Iggulden, Simon Scarrow, and Kate Quinn. Are there any authors within the genre you particularly look out for, and are there any authors outside of it that you especially enjoy?

I wouldn’t want to single out any writer in particular, my shelves are full of Harry Sidebottom, Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson, Nick Brown as well as the authors that you have mentioned and many more who I read and enjoy for differing reasons; everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. However, the best Roman historical novel, in my opinion, is Julian by Gore Vidal, mainly because of the depth of the debate that powers the book. I’m also very fond of Allan Massie’s books as well as Graves and Harris.

11. You've published a series of novellas behind the Vespasian series, through Corvus in the UK - The Crossroads Brotherhood, The Racing Factions, and The Dreams of Morpheus. Have you ever been tempted to self-publish any background stories, and do you ever feel under any pressure to produce more?

There will be six Magnus novellas in all, the next one, The Alexandrian Embassy, will be out in November. I’m not contracted to do them, I do them for fun and as a warm up in October before starting the next novel in November; so, therefore, I don’t feel any pressure. As to self-publishing: I’m in the fortunate position whereby I don’t have to consider it; if my publisher didn’t consider something to be worthy of publication then I wouldn’t go to great expense to inflict it on an unsuspecting public.

12. I've just finished reading - and enjoyed - Vespasian V: Masters of Rome. Despite the fighting in Britiannia, it was the intrigue with Pallas and Narcissus that had me on tenterhooks. Unfortunately, I have to wait another month for Vespasian VI: Rome's Lost Son! Is there anything about the coming novel you want to share with us?

The only fact that we know about Vespasian in the timespan of the novel is that he was consul in 51; I’ve therefore had to invent the whole plot which I did by inserting him into the events of 51 to 54. It starts in Rome and ends in Rome and in between, Vespasian and Magnus go on a road-trip around the east.

13. Looking back on the Vespasian series so far, are there any particular moments that stand out to you as particularly memorable, for one reason or another?

If I had to pick anything out it would be the planning and execution of stealing Alexander the Great’s breastplate from his mausoleum in book 3. I based it on various episodes in Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 with Flavia doing the Julia Roberts distraction bit, Ziri being the little Chinese guy on the inside, getting around the high tech alarm system of the geese and Vespasian and Magnus having George Clooney/Brad Pitt quick-fire conversations answering every question with another question as well as plenty of other stuff. I also enjoyed the Roman invasion force’s preparation, crossing of the channel, advance through Kent and the Battle of the Medway in book 4 for the sheer scale of the thing and realising that I was not exaggerating the scale of the endeavour. And anything to do with Caligula I also love!

14. Now the obligatory writing question - do you have any specific nuggets of advice to share with aspiring writers out there?

Be very disciplined with yourself, it’s a job not a hobby. Stay at your computer all day even if you feel that nothing is happening and always remember that it’s better to write 200 good words in a day than 1500 bad ones.

Many thanks for your time, and I look forward to reading the rest of Vespasian's fascinating story!

You can find Robert Fabbri's Vespasian series on Amazon: