ON THE COUCH ... Conn IGGULDEN
LONDON-BORN CONN IGGULDEN read English at the University of London and worked as a schoolteacher for seven years before becoming a full-time writer. His first historical novel, The Gates of Rome, was published in 2003, the first in the four-part “Emperor” series. The Dangerous Book for Boys (which he co-authored with Hal Iggulden) won Book of the Year at the 2007 Galaxy British Book Awards. Iggulden’s latest books, Lords of the Bow and Bones of the Hills, second and third parts of the “Conqueror” series based on the life of Genghis Khan, were published in January and September 2008 respectively. The first part, Wolf of the Plains, was published in January 2007. He lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and their children.
How do you write?
When I was younger, I was convinced that writing was something you did in a sort of white heat of inspiration. Great unplanned tracts would issue from my pen, or an early word processor, with nothing but cigarettes to keep me going. Part of me still thinks that. The problem is that it’s quite difficult to get into that kind of mood, especially if you are tired.
About 12 years ago, I wrote a poem in that blur of creativity, then another one on the same topic, but as coldly and as skilfully as I could. One was art and the other, craft. When I’d finished, I couldn’t decide which I liked best, so I put them in a drawer for a long time. I found them again years later and couldn’t remember which was which. I’d discovered, almost by accident, that it is possible to match the creative impulse with sheer graft―or that my poetry wasn’t that good, one or the other.
As a result, I plan my books. I resisted the idea for a long time, even when I read a quote from Dickens saying that another man was ‘still enough of an amateur to believe you don’t have to plan.’ The creativity is still there, of course, but I like to know the last line before I begin the first. It is the difference between rambling and structure. For me, it may be the difference between being published and not being published.
I tend to write in the small hours and I smoke more when I’m writing than at any other time. I do give up smoking occasionally and I can live without them, but not write without them, which is a bit of a problem. I also inhale espressos, usually in the form of about sixteen to a large mug. It isn’t healthy, but there’s still a part of me that thinks any form of creativity should be at the expense of your health. If it doesn’t hurt you, it probably isn’t any good. Ludicrous, I know.
Writing historical fiction, I do have some of the plot laid out for me. I can hardly omit Julius Caesar’s great battles, or the fact that Genghis Khan killed his own brother. Given that skeleton of events, I can concentrate on characters—the acid test of fiction. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, the book is worthless. It can be a difficult task with ruthless devils like Genghis, but that’s the job. I write the sort of books I enjoy reading and so far, others seem to like them as well. I’ve always enjoyed a good story and thankfully, history is a collection of good ones.
Finally, I’d like to thank (and annoy) all the history teachers out there. Thank you for losing sight of the great tales, the glory and the magic of history. While you earnestly discuss the difference between tertiary and secondary sources, I have a career.
You spent time in Mongolia researching the Genghis Khan stories. You must have had some fascinating experiences there. What sticks out most in your memories?
I realised I had to go to Mongolia when I tried to write the very first scene. My habit has always been to imagine the landscape, then write what I can ‘see.’ In this case, I knew almost nothing of the colours, animals, sights and sounds of Mongolia, so I booked a flight, transferring through Moscow. The plan was to ride as far as I could, then change to a jeep to reach Genghis Khan’s birthplace. It was bitterly cold when I arrived and by the time I found someone willing to guide me, it was snowing. I spent the first few days riding through deep snow in a more desolate landscape than I could ever have imagined. That emptiness stays with me. The population of Mongolia is only 2.7 million, in 1.3 million square miles. In other words, apart from the capital city of Ulaan Baatar, it’s practically empty. In a true wilderness, I cooked meals with nomadic families in their homes of felt and wicker, camped out and climbed hills, all the time making notes and drawings of anything interesting.
It was a great help to me that the life of a modern nomadic family hasn’t changed a great deal from Genghis’ day. I met men who still hunted with a bow and kept herds of sheep and goats. It’s true that one or two ger tents had wind-driven generators running a TV inside, but they still cooked on an iron stove and dressed in thick robes the khan would have recognised. They welcomed me, even when my guide appeared at their homes and began cooking on their stoves with barely more than a greeting. That friendliness is a favourite memory—especially of the old lady who had just finished distilling ‘airag,’ their vodka, and was delighted to see strangers at such a lucky time. I swam in icy rivers and developed a new and intimate understanding of saddle sores. It was invaluable for someone who wanted to use that landscape as a background for Wolf of the Plains. Without that trip, I couldn’t even have begun it.
Are there written histories of Genghis Khan in Mongolia, or did you use folklore and legend to recreate the story?
The Secret History of the Mongols is the only written history from the time to survive―and even that was lost in Mongolian and had to be retranslated from a Chinese copy. Like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, there are legendary aspects to the story of Genghis, but it is still the best source we have for the period. I’ve collected a library of other writing, such as Marco Polo’s work on the court of Kublai Khan, Genghis’ grandson, and various other writings about that part of the world. It is an extraordinary, powerful story, but of course, the history of Genghis was most often written by his enemies. I do believe that if he had been half as prolific as Julius Caesar, he would be much better known and admired.
After writing about Julius Caesar in the Emperor series, and now Genghis Khan, did both share the same magic of inspiring people to follow them, or were they quite different in how they created their empires?
There is no question that both were inspiring, charismatic leaders, but Caesar came to power in an established society, while Genghis had to create one from scratch. There simply wasn’t the concept of a Mongolian nation before him. That was his great vision, if you like, that the scattered tribes were one people and therefore could be united under one man.
One particular problem of writing about Genghis is that he had a very different idea of empire from men like Caesar. There is little doubt that Caesar genuinely thought he was bringing the light of civilisation to places like Gaul and Britain―with some justification! In comparison, Genghis conquered because he could, not because he thought it was right, in any sense. As leader of a nomadic people, he seems to have believed that if you have the strength, there is no better way to spend your youth than in destroying strong enemies. Occasionally, throughout his life, he would simply stop and go home for a few years. In that way, he wasn’t driven as Caesar was. Life didn’t stop for travel―for a nomadic people, life went on regardless of where they were going.
He was ruthless, of course, but not a maniac. If he captured a hundred thousand people and could not feed so many, he ordered them all killed, without regret. At the same time, he was fascinated by individual bravery and managed to send his generals on raids for three or four years without them ever turning against him and staging a coup.
Though history is littered with examples of charismatic men forging empires from nothing, Genghis is also unique in that it didn’t fall apart on his death. Strong men, like Ivan the Terrible, King Canute or King Edward I, usually have weak sons. Genghis didn’t. As a result, the story continues after his death and his grandson Kublai eventually became the emperor of China and perhaps the richest and most powerful man on earth. That’s a story worth telling.
The Dangerous Book for Boys was an enjoyable interlude. Were you surprised at just how successful this has become, creating its own genre?
At the time of writing, it’s just gone back to No. 1 in the New York Times and Disney has bought the rights to make a film. In the U.K., a TV series is going ahead in 2008. I keep telling myself it has to stop at some point, but it seems to go from strength to strength.
I was certainly surprised at the success. I don’t think my books had ever reached the charts in America and to be in the top ten in Britain for more than a year was both wonderful and strange. Taking the long view though, my main love is in plundering history for the great tales.
Thankfully, that’s where the best ones are found. I hope to be able to continue that work as long as people enjoy them as much as I do.
Reproduced from the April-June 2008 issue of MPH Quill magazine