Interview by Carl Marsh - October 2014
you have written many books but if I could go back to the beginning, how hard or straightforward was it to get that first book deal with your debut The Gates of Rome?
In one sense it took 15 years of constant writing and rejection. In another, I sent it to one agent with a simple covering letter. She said yes and placed it with five publishers who bid against each other. Those were heady times.
What made you become a writer in the first place, was it something you always wanted to do, and did you envisage your work becoming such a hit with The Gates of Rome?
I was writing from the age of around 11 – and I mean trying to finish full length manuscripts and sending them to publishers (I didn’t understand about agents for a long time). I remember counting the words on a page by David Gemmell and then multiplying up by the number of pages, to get a ballpark figure for the length of a book.
The Gates of Rome went to No.2 on the Sunday Times hardback bestseller list. I remember the publisher telling me it didn’t always work like that, but I loved the book, so it didn’t seem surprising to me that other people would as well.
Many people reading this interview will know all about your books, whether it be the historical fiction books, or The Dangerous Book for Boys, that you wrote with your brother Hal. So of all the books you have written (or co-written), which one is your favourite, and why?
I started this sentence three times and then deleted it. It really isn’t possible to choose between them. I’m proud of them all. The Genghis ones meant I had to ride horses across Mongolia, which will always be a cherished memory. The same goes for tallship sailing in the Pacific on the 12-4 watch, to learn about ships for The Death of Kings. The Dangerous Book for Boys is like nothing else I’ve done, but seems to have reached people all over the world. That is a joy. Writing is telling a story yes – but it’s also communication, of ideas, of a philosophy. It’s wonderful to feel that connection with readers.
This might be a tricky one as I know you will have read so many books, but, can you also tell me what is the best book (or books) you have ever read, and why?
Again it depends on context. For laughter, I’d choose Three Men in a Boat, or books by Peter Pook or PG Wodehouse or Sue Townsend. For crime, Lee Child, or Michael Connelly, or a hundred others. For fantasy, Brent Weeks, Mark Lawrence and so on. For historical fiction James Clavell, George McDonald Fraser, Ben Kane, Anthony Riches – I could go on and on with that one, obviously. I loved the book Fight Club and the Secret Garden, when all I wanted was to be Dickon and have some contact with wild animals. Books have always been special to me. It’s not an internal thing at all. A good book is stepping out of yourself into someone else’s world.
And recently, have you read any good books that you can care to mention?
Valour by John Gwynne, American Gun by Chris Kyle, The Circle by Dave Eggers and the one that might mean I’m around a bit longer: The Only Way to Stop Smoking Permanently by Allen Carr. A good book can change your life. There are one or two that might even save it.
As you know, I use this website to promote reading, with the help of the interviews I do, so in your own words, why is reading important to you?
Sometimes, it’s just for fun. I might read a thriller in the bath, or stay up too late with a gripping story when I have an early call the following morning. Like most people, I can become interested in a character and simply want to know what happens next to them. It’s not much more complicated than that if I’m reading yet another ‘Jack Reacher wallops the bad guy’ story, or ‘Harry Bosch catches another killer’.
Other times, I might read an idea that stays with me. Without looking it up, here is a line from a Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman book called ‘Good Omens’. I might be phrasing it a little differently, but here goes: “My Young would not have dreamed of going to church, but the church he avoided so carefully was the Church of England, of course. There was no question at all about that.”
The idea amuses and intrigues me, even if I have the words half wrong. There’s a great truth there about the English and their attitudes to church, expressed humorously. Pratchett also wrote: Build a man a fire and he’s warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Yes, that made me laugh, but it’s also an example of the sort of thing you can only find in a good book. They bring joy and they stimulate the mind. What’s not to love?
What can we expect from Conn Iggulden in the next 12 months?
The third book in the Wars of the Roses series, as yet untitled. The pilot for a series based on the Dangerous Book for Boys made for NBC by Bryan Cranston. Fingers crossed that one goes further. I am a complete fan of Cranston’s after Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle.
Can you offer any advice to any ‘budding’ writers that are reading this?
Learn about people, but as Graham Greene said: keep a chip of ice in your heart. You cannot write about people if you are blinded by tears.
When did you become a full-time writer?
December 2001, aged 30.
Do you plan on moving into ever writing in a different genre?
Definitely. I love historical fiction – adore it. It gives a writer access to scenes of extraordinary power. The flaw in the genre is that the research takes forever.
One of these days, I’m going to try my hand at pure fiction and see what happens.
Will we ever see the Emperor series on the TV, or cinema perhaps?
There are film and TV options on Emperor, Conqueror and the Dangerous Book. I will keep fingers and toes crossed. I don’t expect any film or TV deal to make any money, but they should reach out to a lot more people and tap them on the shoulder and say ‘Hey, this Iggulden, he can tell a tale, you know? Give it a go. Try 20 pages and put it down if you don’t like it. Ok?”
That’s pretty much all I’ve ever wanted.
I know The Dangerous Book for Boys was a bestseller all over the world, and won quite a few awards. Will you and your brother be co-writing any more books?
I won’t say never, though he runs a restaurant and has three kids now. I have four and I just can’t see how we could ever take six months off from our normal lives to do something like that again. It was like the stars aligning, that book. It was the right time and everything just sort of worked.
Last question Conn, in your own words, as if you were writing them in one of your books, “If you were an animal, what would it be, and why?”
Part of me would like to be a dog, no doubt about that. I’m big and enthusiastic and happy enough with a patch of sunshine and a little affection and a bowl of something nice to eat. I like the idea of not worrying about the future. It will come, good and bad together. Dogs treat triumph and disaster just the same. That’s not such a bad thing.
Thank you Carl – a pleasure.