Nicholas Bowling’s debut novel, Witchborn, was set in Elizabethan times, and saw a young woman thrown into Bedlam and encountering witchcraft. His second, In the Shadow of Heroes, leaps backwards to the Roman Empire under Nero. The hero, an ex-slave, teams up with the beefy daughter of a British chieftain, meeting many adventures along the way. The book has been shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award. Philip Womack interviewed him for Books for Keeps.
Nicholas Bowling was born in Oxford, but then moved up to Chester at the age of four. He read Classics and English at Queens College, Oxford, graduating in 2007, and went on to teach Latin. I chat to him via Skype – he is in New Zealand, house-sitting for a friend, whilst I sit in my kitchen, occasionally interrupted by my four-year old son.
How does it feel to be shortlisted for the Costa?
Amazing! It’s madness! There’s always a surprise when you get nominated, but honestly I thought no-one was reading it.
I also read Classics and English – as a subject it seems to lend itself to children’s fiction.
I think that Classics does the same sort of job as science fiction. It allows you to look at people having a go at a civilisation and to see what went well and what didn’t. I think that tension between it being totally recognisable and totally foreign at one and the same time. In the same way that science fiction allows you to explore a way of building a society; I think classics does a similar sort of thing.
Were you a Latinist or a Greekist?
I was firmly a Latinist. That’s my terrible, terrible secret.
I shan’t tell anyone. What were your favourite texts?
I’ve always had a soft spot for Ovid, Metamorphoses. I love how fast and loose the Romans played with myth, it’s something that you can quite happily rework and reimagine. Ovid – he’s everyone’s favourite, isn’t he? I’ll tell you who I really love, I did Neronian literature, as part of my masters, and I really liked Lucan, The Civil War, I just think it’s completely bananas.
That scene where the witch calls up the corpse!
Yes! The zombie prophecy! It’s really astonishing, and bizarre, it’s so modern, it’s ultra violent. It’s the epic that Neronian Rome deserves.
Your first novel was set in the 16th century – was that a conscious decision to move away from that, to go into the classics
Yeah, I think so. I’d been writing that one on and off for about five years. I felt it was about time to do something different. I’d always felt I had a Classics book in me. And I got really inspired by The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, which is a great fantasy book, it got me back into reading. I had a bit of a dry spell after I left university, I had forgotten how to read for pleasure. Rothfuss’ book is about a “hero” who is recounting his life story to a scribe over three nights in an inn in which he basically debunks all the myths surrounding him. And I was just really interested in how legends and myths started in the first place.
I think you do a really good job of getting across the (imagined) insanity of Nero.
It’s quite high camp. I’ve taken some liberties – I’ve definitely taken the Suetonius version of Nero and run with it. I make no apologies for that!
Both my books have a quite heroic tone to them, so I wondered whether you had thought about that?
I consciously tried not to emulate any high-falutin’ kind of epic tone – I think especially given that the point of view is a slave, I definitely wanted it to have a bit more saltiness. And also to try and get young readers not to feel the distance between the classical world and their world.
Were you always interested in Classics?
I was really lucky to have really amazing teachers. Classics teachers in particular tend to fall into two camps, which are the Victorian slightly austere teacher, and then at the other end of the spectrum there are the eccentric, ebullient, engaging ones – and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the middle! That eccentricity that you get in classicists can go either way, it can either make for incredibly engaging and charming teachers or it can switch kids off. The jury’s out as to which one I was!
Do you think the teaching is an adjunct to the writing? Do you think it’s asymbiotic thing?
I don’t think one necessarily comes from the other. Teaching definitely helps – it helped in a practical sense in that you got a feel for how kids think and what they want to read. And then in a slightly less tangible way it’s quite inspiring to be around them. I really loved how honest kids are. By the time they get to sixth form they’re starting to learn the etiquette of criticism, and their thoughts are already starting to calcify a bit, but lower down the school, there are really interesting and exciting ways of approaching the classical world. So in that way, it’s really invigorating.
Are there going to be more books set in the classical world do you think?
I’d definitely like to revisit it. At the moment, the book I’m writing is another standalone, and so that I’ll have to get that out the way first. I really liked those characters actually. I really enjoyed spending time in the company of the characters.
So finally, why should children continue to study Classics?
I think being able to use it as a blueprint for seeing how the world could function, or how other people try to make a civilisation function and what you can learn from that. I still think the endorphin hit you get from translating a hard piece of Latin – it’s a sort of intellectual Candy Crush saga, when everything finally slots into place – the Indiana Jones deciphering aspect of it. Overall I always just used to say – the stories. The reason that you learn Latin is to get to the literature, it’s astonishing in its breadth and richness.
Thank you very much – and vale!
In the Shadow of Heroes is published by Chicken House, 978-1911077688, £6.99 pbk.