Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Conversation with Bruce MacBain


As a child Bruce Macbain read science fiction and history. Greek and Roman history held a special fascination for him and it led eventually to acquiring a master's degree in Classical Studies and a doctorate in Ancient History. As an assistant professor of Classics, he taught courses in Late Antiquity and Roman religion and published a few scholarly monographs. He eventually left academe and turned to teaching English as a second language, a field he was trained in while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Borneo in the 60s. He recently began writing historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, featuring the senatorial letter-writer Pliny the Younger as his protagonist, assisted by other literary figures such as the poet Martial and the biographer Suetonius. Bruce also reviews books for the Historical Novels Review and Foreword magazine.

Bruce, when and why did you decide to write mysteries of the Roman Empire?

I have degrees in Classics and Ancient History and taught those subjects in university for a number of years. I’ve also always been a mystery fan so, having the leisure now to write novels, it seems like a perfect match. My particular interests are ancient medicine and Roman religion and so in each of my novels so far I’ve worked in one disease (female hysteria, epilepsy) and one cult (Isis, Mithras). I may eventually run out of diseases, but never of cults—there were a lot of them!

Why the fascination with Roman and Greek history? And which Roman and Greek fascinate you most?

I’ve been interested in the Romans since I was a kid. I may hold the world’s record for the number of times anyone has seen Quo Vadis. I’m sure initially it was the costumes, the armor, the battles—that sort of stuff. I read everything I could find on the subject. My interest in the Greeks came later, in college, when I read Herodotus and Thucydides.

It’s tough to pick out one Roman and one Greek who fascinate me the most. For the sake of argument, I’ll pick two wily politicians: Augustus Caesar, who went from rags to riches by founding the Roman Principate; and Alcibiades, the Athenian, who went from riches to rags (more or less) by leading his city into a disastrous military campaign.
Why did you choose Pliny as the protagonist for your latest novel, The Bull Slayer?

I chose him because I like him so much. He’s one of the few Romans I can think of who I would actually like to have dinner with. We know more about Pliny as a person than we do about most figures from antiquity because he was a great letter writer. Through his letters, we see many facets of the man. He was a Roman senator and a lawyer with a successful, if not brilliant, career in the imperial administration. He was a landowner with a beautiful villa on the Italian coast. He was a literary dilettante. He was rather a rather vain, rather fussy man but, at the same time, conscientious and honest. He was a very social animal with hundreds of friends and acquaintances across all classes. His most endearing qualities are his love for his young wife, Calpurnia, his generosity (he endowed a scholarship fund for the boys and girls of his home town), and his humanity towards his slaves and freedmen in an age when that was not common.

By which criteria do you review historical novels? And are they gaining favor in the marketplace?

Historical novels occupy a kind of peculiar niche in literature, somewhere on the borderline between fiction and non-fiction. And for that reason maybe they haven’t always gotten the respect they deserve; although now, with the great critical success of Hillary Mantel’s books, this is changing. For many years I’ve reviewed novels for the Historical Novels Review, the publication of the Historical Novels Society. The criteria I apply are, one: is the novel well-written, with characters that I care about? And two: have I learned something? Not that I think a novel ought to be a textbook—mine certainly aren’t. But I do think that the author has an obligation to lay out briefly, in an author’s note, just what is fact and what is fiction. I do that, and I appreciate it when others do.

Why did you leave teaching the classics to teach English as a second language? And what were the resultant rewards?

I’ve always been a teacher of one sort or another. I love teaching. I left teaching Classics because, frankly, I was doing too much teaching and not enough writing and didn’t get tenure at my university. After feeling sorry for myself for a while, I decided not to become a gypsy professor (as some of my compatriots did) and instead to strike out in a different direction. I had been trained to teach English as a second language as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia and so it felt natural to return to that. I’ve never regretted it. Teaching English and vocational training to Chinese, Hispanic, Somali, and Albanian immigrants and helping them get decent jobs has been enormously rewarding (compared, for example, to teaching the tenses of the Latin verb to college kids). I’ve never felt so much love come back as I have in this job.

What do you like least about writing and what do you enjoy most about the creative process?

What I find pleasantest is the research. I’ve never understood writers who hire ‘researchers’ to do that part for them. Why let someone else have all the fun? What I find hardest (and I’m sure any writer you ask will say this) is turning the fruits of your research into something others will get pleasure from. In academic writing you’re allowed to be boring; people will read it because they have, not because they want to. But to take your research and turn it into a good yarn—that is every writer’s despair and delight.

Advice for fledging historical authors?

Oh, I don’t think I have mileage in this field to be giving other people advice. I always start with character and setting and allow the plot to grow out of that—but maybe that’s what everyone does.

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1 comment:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Welcome to Mysterious Writers, Bruce. It's good to have you join us here this week.