Ben Kane: In Conversation
Ben Kane is a bestselling author of historical fiction, whose works have appeared across the globe. In stories usually set during the Roman Republic - covering the likes of the Second Punic War, the rise and fall of Caesar, the Macedonian wars, and the attempted conquest of Germania - he has wowed readers with unforgettable characters, intriguing storylines, immense battles and impressive research that has taken him out of the archives and into the wilds of living history. Recently, though, he has left his Roman roots behind to consider the life of a king from a different time: the crusader king of England, Richard I. We caught up with him to find out about this new adventure.
Your new book, Crusader, has just come out; what can you tell me about it?
Crusader is the second of three books about Richard the Lionheart. Lionheart came out last year and Crusader continues the story, when Richard fulfilled his long-held dream of leading an army to the Holy LandLands comprising of what is now Isreal and Palestine, including the holy land of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions.. Jerusalem had fallen to Saladin's army a couple of years before and Richard had taken the cross while he was still only heir to the throne. But because of family squabbling and fighting with the French king, he wasn't able to fulfil his dream until the summer of 1190. So, he organized, paid for and shipped an army of 20,000 men from the middle of France down to the south coast, and then all the way to Sicily, Cyprus and then Israel. It's just an extraordinary undertaking.
It was a huge amount of fun to write because, having written 13 books about Rome – where sometimes you can have a whole war referred to in just one paragraph and that's all that survives – for this book there are multiple first-hand accounts that exist in their entirety, as complete works. There was a cleric by the name of Ambroise who wrote The History of the Holy War, who was with Richard the whole way along. A lot of the events he describes he saw with his own eyes. Fascinatingly, there are also several Muslim accounts that survive, like one by Saladin's secretary. Again, they say things like, 'I saw this with my own eyes'. After writing all those books about Rome, it felt like I was six years old and someone had just given me the keys to Hamleys. It also meant that the book ended up being way longer than normal. My books would normally be about 120,000 to 130,000 words. Crusader was 170,000 because I packed so much in. My editor had a word and I cut it down, but I think it's still nearly 150,000 because there were so many gems. It was a joy to write. It nearly wrote itself, actually.
I'm busy writing the third one at the moment, which is called King and it's coming out next year. That's the culmination, although there's room for a loosely linked fourth book called Magna Carta in the future. Whether I write it depends on what else I’m doing.
How do you go about deciding what ends up on the cutting-room floor?
When I've written a book and the editor asks me to cut bits, I'll skim-read it. There'll be scenes where I put something in because I liked it, but I have to ask myself, ‘How does this affect Richard's campaign, and the main character (who's not Richard, but one of his loyal knights), and does it really directly pertain to his story?’ If it doesn't, it's got to go, and that's how I did it. Sometimes it's just a paragraph and then sometimes it's a whole scene and it's horrible doing it. I always save what I cut because in the past I've been able to transplant that into a short story: free writing a year or two down the line!
Do you find it a downside that you can't imagine as much with the Crusades as you can with Rome?
I was watching a podcast last night with two friends, Simon Scarrow and Anthony Riches, who have both just written crime novels, and neither of them plot their Roman books at all: they just know the beginning and the end. I hate that: I did it with my second book and my editor made me rewrite 25 per cent of it, twice. I really didn't know where the plot was going, and she could tell that.
I actually love history, real history, so much. I like sticking to it and weaving fiction around it. The making-up stuff is great, and it just happens organically. With Lionheart I had to make a lot of it up because we didn't know what was happening with Richard at the time. But with Crusader, I almost enjoy it more when you know which way the story goes, when you can't make it up. To me the facts are so extraordinary that I just want to bring them to life. For example, there's a scene I put in that is actually from the siegeA military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender. of Acre, which happened before Richard got there. Acre was held by the Muslims and was being besieged by the Christians, who formed a raggle-taggle army, and they were being attacked by Saladin. It was a Christian sandwich. They had a ditch around their camp, and if you wanted to go to the loo, you went outside the camp. I don't know the name of the person it happened to, so I was able to use it with my main character, but one day there was a guy doing his business on his own in the middle of this flat landscape. And a Muslim warrior saw him and basically came to kill him on a horse. All the other Christians were going, 'Run, run!' – the words they shouted actually survive – but he wasn't going to make it. So he picked up a couple of stones and threw one, and hit this Muslim guy right in the forehead. He was killed either falling off his horse or the stone killed him, and the Christian took the horse. I would never imagine that; I'm not imaginative enough. But this is real, so I literally just transcribed what they said.
When you wrote your very first book, the historical note at the back was about a paragraph long. They’ve become bigger since then. Is that mainly in response to people coming up and asking you the same question again and again about your research?
I was very cavalier. I was quite naive and arrogant, and just thought, ‘I can write a bestseller; I can write better than the such-and-such book’. Also, my agent really wanted me to juice it up with sex. I told them they didn't do this or that, and he told me not to worry about it, so I put it in. Now, of course, I wouldn’t because we think we know what they did, and I want to show that.
It's partly a response to lessons learned. I'll set the scene: when I was six and we were on our way back from Africa, where I grew up, we stopped in Mykonos, and we were on the quay one day. There was a battleship in the bay and a boat full of sailors came in, presumably all to go on the beer. The locals stripped bare the stalls of fruit and veg, and they peppered the sailors so much that the boat turned around and went back out to the ship. When I wrote The Forgotten Legion and got a book deal, my editor said, 'I think you need a chapter here, a few chapters here. Just to juice up these individual characters' stories.' So, I wrote this scene, which was edited three times as opposed to the rest of the book, which was edited maybe 50 times. In that scene, I had the Roman general Crassus having fruit thrown at him, and I wrote tomatoes. Of course, if you'd asked me in a quiz, 'When did tomatoes come to Europe?', I would have said at some point in the 1500s. But when I wrote it, in my mind I was watching tomatoes hitting sailors. My editor didn't pick it up; the copy editor didn't pick it up. When it went to print, I sent a copy of the book to my dad, and he rang me up and said, 'You do know that tomatoes...?' I just thought, 'Oh, no.' Most people don't notice, but I've had one-star reviews because of it. So, it's partly in response to that.
Also, it's partly because my nature is to try to do the best job I can. That means a lot of research. History's always been my favourite subject, even though I'm a vet, so I take great joy in the research. It's got to be very light, though. My first book is full of info dumps: ‘a Roman soldier was dressed like this; he was wearing that...’. Although I never do that anymore, people often tell me that the history shines out. So it's a big part of my job, and I love it. Probably 99 per cent of readers don't know that the details in it are real. Many don't care that much, but I want them to know. I want them to know that the guy outside the camp at Acre was real. Or, that an artifact I mentioned is actually in the museum at Teutoburg Forest in Germany. I want them to know I didn't make it up.
I also literally comb the manuscript for phrases that could be anachronistic. If there are any question that they're too modern, out they come. Some words and phrases that sound quite modern are really quite old. I used to swear in my Rome books a lot and actually a lot of the words we use today were also used by the Romans. I occasionally get emails complaining that I was using foul language, and I had one email saying that Romans didn’t curse. I had to respond to that one with a hyperlink to graffiti in Pompeii. I wouldn't do that now – it's not worth it.
What's the general response from specialists, people like Mary Beard, to your books?
I don't know that Mary Beard has ever read any of my books! I do quite a lot of talks for schools that teach classics; a lot of them read my books and usually don't have anything negative to say. One of the things that's really nice when I do my talks – I do everyday life in Rome or Pompeii, everyday life in ancient Britain, Hadrian's Wall, the Second Punic War, gladiators and the big one is the everyday life of a legionary – is that teachers will tell me, ‘We don't learn any of that’, because the texts they use are really dry. I’m glad they learn a lot from the talks and enjoy them – I go the whole nine yards, and use all the resources from the re-enactors and everything I've done.
Do you find that what you do with living history helps your writing?
Massively. I had no idea when I first started out and walked Hadrian's Wall. I did that because I was 43 and fat. I've had a weight problem nearly all my life and when I gave up veterinary I swore I'd get fit, but four or five years down the line I was getting fatter not thinner. At least when you're a vet, you're picking up dogs and other animals.
With some authors, like Christian Cameron, you can tell when they talk about a group of men around a fire or marching that they’ve actually done it. Most people wouldn't notice the details that are in my books, but many come from experience. So, there's a thing with Roman swords: the hilt of the sword's really high and when people wear them, they come up almost to the armpit. This means that when you're marching, you get a special blister and soldiers would either have put a strip of leather around the hilt or they would have had a callus there. I know because I ended up with a weeping blister on Hadrian's Wall. So I put that in the book.
As a vet I've done thousands of operations and hundreds of bovine caesareans, and I know what a blade does to flesh. When I was a student, I spent a summer in Africa, out in the middle of nowhere – no running water, no electricity, just eating beans and rice. Every Saturday I bought two crates of beer and a goat from a local Maasai, and I used to kill it and butcher it for the camp. I used to use a little knife and just swipe it across the neck. And that goes right through everything to the backbone in one cut. It's useful knowledge, and when I write it, it's accurate. For an awful lot of writers, it’s not.
Even when I don’t have direct experience, I try to find someone who has. I read an incredible memoir, which was only found about ten years ago. It was written on tiny little sheets of paper in tiny script by a German soldier on the Eastern Front. He was only 21 but he survived for about two years, and he wrote this memoir right up until the end, until he came back from leave and then was killed. You can just see how he was dehumanized from the beginning to the end. At one point, he describes the body of a guy who had bled into his throat and who had died lying on his back. This soldier rolled the dead guy from his back to his side, and described how the blood all spewed out of his chest. I thought, ‘That guy didn't have to die from gunshot. I've got to get that into a book somewhere.’ I wrote it all down exactly.
Also, there’s a really good ‘Roman Army Talk’ forum on Facebook, and I started a thread on there about ten years ago about bladed weapons. I wrote, 'I know this is really weird, but has anyone ever seen someone stabbed or killed with a blade?' The topic sank like a stone. Six months later, I get this ‘Bing’, and it was an old American guy who had been in Vietnam. The US army didn't issue them with machetes, so all the soldiers carried cheap ones they’d bought in the local towns. So, they'd been in the jungle for however long, and one day they were all lying around a clearing, when one of their guys snaps. He stood up and walked over to one of the others and chopped at this person's neck. The machete was cheap steel and it was just a one-handed swing, not even with much force behind it, but the guy's head almost fell off – it was just hanging on by a flap of skin. Apparently it was unbelievably easy. This ties in with Roman accounts of the invasion of Macedon in 200 BC, which say how terrified people in the Macedonian phalanx were of the gladius hispaniensis because of the ease with which you removed arms, legs and heads. So when I heard about the machete attack, I just went quod erat demonstrandum'QED': literally means 'what was to be shown', where a fact or situation demonstrates the truth of a theory or opinion.. It matched my own experience as a vet.
Have you done any living history for your new books?
Not really, partially because of coronavirus. I've been to a lot of the sites, but I haven't bought any of the equipment. It's too expensive, and I've got to think of cost effectiveness: am I ever going to wear it? I wanted a twelfth century crossbow, but although it’s accurate, it’s £1,250, and a dagger was £1,000. Also, with the armour, the helmet's 5kg, the mail's 30kg. I'm never going to wear it, so as much as I would like to, it's not worth it – I can't justify it.
I do reckon that the Franks must have dropped like flies in the heat. Even though the accounts don't tell us they did, they must have. They had a gambeson and then the mail. The Romans used a subarmalis, which is a kind of padded tunic, and that and the mail together provided the maximum protection. If you just wear mail and someone stabs you, even if the blade doesn't go through (which it probably won't), it can still rupture your spleen because of the force. But when I was doing the Roman stuff, I gave up wearing the padding because on a hot day, you literally can't drink enough water and you just pass out. I often wonder whether Roman soldiers would wear a subarmalis when they were in Syria or Egypt, but how else? If you're marching in the sun, you would cook. Cars get really hot when you leave them in the sun all day, so if you're a soldier in mail, you're going to be barbecued alive before you do your 20 miles.
What is your next project; will it be the fourth book?
That's for years down the line. I'm going to write a standalone next year for release in 2023. I can't say the topic, but it's not medieval, it's not Roman. And then I feel duty bound to finish the Hannibal ones – I think two more should do it – because I get so many emails about it. The trouble is it's been so many years since I wrote one, I don't feel the pull like I did.
Depending on sales, I really want to write a trilogy set in Ireland, starting in 1916 with the Easter Rising and finishing in 1923. Next year is the centenary year for independence, but then there was a civil war between the ones who wanted to sign the treaty with Britain and the ones who didn't. It wasn't about the Six Counties of Northern Ireland, which some people think. It was because they got their independence but had to swear allegiance to the king. I've got so many family members who were on both sides – either in the British army or in what became the IRA – and the stories are just magic. My brother has unearthed a story about some family members who needed to bring guns up to Dublin, but they didn't know how to do it. So, they sent them with a couple of girls who could drive. They put the rifles in the boot of a car and these two girls dolled themselves up to the nines and went through multiple British army roadblocks, fluttering their eyelashes. They just got waved through them all. My granddad had a parrot that used to say, 'Up the Republic', including when their house was being searched by soldiers. They also had a cake that said it and they had to turn it upside down, so the soldiers couldn't read the icing. When my great-grandfather came home from the trenchesLong, narrow ditches, he brought his pistol home, because you that's what you did. He wasn't involved with the IRA, but he must have been worried about the pistol being taken by them or something, because his wife took it into the Royal Gresham Hotel (which is a really smart hotel in the centre of Dublin) and left it in the toilet. As you do! So I really want to write that, but I'm terribly aware that I'm not Bernard Cornwell and I'm not Wilbur Smith, so I have to watch the topics I write because that’s what pays my mortgage, it pays for my kids. If my publisher doesn't think it's going to sell, I'm not going to write it.
If it isn't that, it would possibly be another time period, or I've got Roman books that I could write until I die. There are so many parts of Rome, but basically everyone writes about the emperors or the PrincipateThe rule of the early Roman emperors, during which some features of republican government appeared to remain.. All I do is republic, republic, republic!
With whom from history would you have a zoom chat?
Hannibal, because he was an extraordinary general, although I don't know how you could relate to somebody from that time period. I would just like to talk to him without going all fanboy. With someone like Hannibal I wouldn't even know what to say.
Where or when in history would you go if you had a safety bubble?
I've always said the Battle of Cannae, to have a drone's view of the battle because it was so extraordinary what Hannibal did. But I'm older now and I don't know if I could actually stomach it. I don't write so many battle scenes anymore because I actually don't enjoy them so much. I was going to say the building of the Colosseum, but that would have used slaves and a lot of them would have died, so I wouldn't want to see that either. Maybe the building of Hadrian's Wall in time-lapse, because it took six years. Or maybe the building of Trajan’s Bridge, which the Romans built over the Danube when they invaded Dacia. It was over a kilometre long and it was permanent. There are places where they built a walkway along the side of the river and you can still see where it was because the holes are still there.