Conn Iggulden could kill Bernard Cornwell. Author of the hugely successful historical fiction series, Emperor and Conqueror, which follow the lives of Julius Caesar and the Mongol warlords Genghis, Ogedai and Kublai Khan respectively, Iggulden is now in search of a new historical epoch to bring to life: “It is upsetting and annoying to discover that so many of the good cherries have already been picked and done so very well. I played around with Arthur for a long time, but the trouble is, he’s been done so often, there are so many good versions out there. Bernard Cornwell’s was a masterpiece. David Gemmell’s version was genius. It’s killing me. Honestly I could kill Bernard Cornwell. He took Arthur, which I can forgive him for, but he did Alfred as well, and Alfred’s brilliant.”
Having toyed with ideas of writing about James I ("There are some lovely moments with him”) and Nelson (“As far as I know, nobody has ever covered him personally, but that’s a really tricky one and whether I could do it well or not, I don’t know”), Iggulden is currently writing the fifth and last book in the Emperor series. Looking at Roman life after Julius Caesar’s assassination, he has had to go back and reread the first four in the series – a task that he found a little frustrating:
“I have to admit the first one isn’t as strong as the later ones. Look back now I think I would do this and that differently. I don’t mean things like historical accuracy though; I’ve had that argument many, many times. There are people with fabulously detailed knowledge, specific experts and historical re-enactors who email me to this day to tell me that the tunic colour was wrong or the spear choice was wrong. It amazes me that with the first Emperor book (The Gates of Rome, 2003) people will write in about the colour of the shields, but I have magic in it, and no one has ever written to me to say: “That’s a bit odd Conn, because magic can’t happen.” It’s strange but I’ve done my best and you can’t always get it right. I’ve just learned to fear the angry email.”
A former head of English at a North London school Iggulden became inspired to write the story of Julius Caesar whilst covering a colleague’s history lesson: “I came across a scene in a book where Augustus Caesar (Julius’ heir) threw the heads of Julius’ assassins at Julius’ statue in Rome and I started thinking about that and thought it was an interesting story. I realised that everybody knew the end of the story, but not the beginning.”
And so began Iggulden’s journey into historical fiction. Clearly a true lover of history, he talks about it with great passion – looking at in terms of great personalities, betrayal, love and death. He explains that his mother always told him the stories of historical individuals, giving him his romantic sensibilities for the subject early on in life: “My mother always said: “History is a series of good stories with dates” and I like that. My job is fun, as I get to look at some of the best stories in the world. I love historical fiction because you really get to look into and play around with humanity and what we as people can do. Even now, if Prince Charles walked into St James Park, put a flag in the ground and said: 'Come to me' …you don’t think a few thousand people would be there by the end of the day? That’s not him the man, that’s him the regal figure. The great thing is to then find the parts where it could have gone horribly, horribly wrong… I love moments like that.”
Iggulden also teamed up with his brother Hal to write the non-fiction guide The Dangerous Book for Boys in 2006 (as well as various spin-offs), which featured close to eighty ‘dangerous’ tasks for boys to master, from building a soapbox racer to how to make potassium aluminium sulphate crystals. He says that writing with his brother was a useful process as their differing interests ensured the book covered a wider range of subjects: “We put in astronomy because, although I wouldn’t have thought about doing it, he’s a fan. So I got to see the moons of Jupiter for the first time, which was amazing. Our basic rule was that if he we couldn’t make it ourselves it couldn’t go in. There were so many things we wanted to include that we couldn’t, like a telegraph machine, because I couldn’t get the bloody thing to work.”
Adding even more strings to his bow Iggulden has also written children’s fiction (Tollins: Explosive Tales for Children, 2009) and a thriller (Blackwater, 2006), a novelette that was part of the World Book Day Quick Reads scheme. He openly admits that although he assumed his fans would be willing to buy his foray into children’s fiction, this “turned out not to be the case, it was a completely different ball game. It can be hard to debut in a different genre to the one you are known in. You get this weird thing, you see it with musicians, where, by the time their album comes out they’ve thought about it for two years and listened to it 150 times and so they want to come out with something a little bit experimental next… but their audience don’t want that, as they’ve only listened to it ten times, and they want the same thing.”
He adds: “If I wanted to do exactly the same thing for the next book I would just pick Attila the Hun or someone like that, but I don’t want to do that. Part of me needs to move on, whilst also being aware that this is what happens to people, they get all funky and experimental and loose their core audience. Blackwater was good for that and I have written another Quick Reads book, which I deliberately set out to be funny because I had never written humorously before, and that felt like a palette cleanser between courses.” But, as to what that next course will be, we will just have to wait and see.
Conn Iggulden's latest novel Conqueror (the fith book in the Conqueror series) will be out on 27 October from HarperCollins. Photo by Ben Gold.