Guests: Steven Pressfield, Steven Saylor
The following article was published originally in the flagship paper, Volume 40, Issue 9. We reprint it here for wider distribution.
Steven Pressfield is the bestselling author of Gates of Fire, hailed by critics as an “epic of man and war.” He is a prolific author, having published eight books including the just-released Killing Rommel, set not in ancient times but in the deserts of North Africa, and is also a veteran of the Marine Corps.
Steven Saylor has been hailed by USA Today as a “modern master of historical fiction.” The bestselling author is most widely recognized for his Roma Sub Rosa series, which features a crime-solving sleuth operating in ancient Rome.
The Review caught up with both Stevens over e-mail.
Tom Clancy once said that while he just sits down and starts writing, going wherever his imagination takes him, Frederick Forsyth crafts meticulous outlines and conducts exhaustive research, virtually finishing the book before he starts. Where do you fit on the spectrum?
Pressfield: I’m somewhere in the middle. I worked as a screenwriter for years; in that discipline you almost have to outline everything before you start because structure is so important. But in a novel, I’m content if I know where I’m going — i.e. the climax — and have the main beats along the way. David Lean once said that a full-length movie was usually composed of seven or eight movements or sections. I like that. I try to know what those sections are before I begin, but I want to leave plenty of room for characters to materialize out of nowhere and for the story to find itself and define itself as it goes along. Like saying to a bartender, “Surprise me.”
Saylor: Since I write historical fiction, my plots are always structured within the constraints of the actual history, and for my stories in the crime genre, I must know who done it (and why and how) before I can begin to write, so I never simply follow voices in my head. I do a lot of historical research first, then work with a loose outline and a list of details I want to include in the plot. Because my novel Roma was composed of multiple novelettes spanning about a thousand years, I wrote a very detailed synopsis first. That was immensely helpful in maintaining the focus of such a large project and in getting me started every day; since all the scenes were blocked out ahead of time, for the full draft I could concentrate on fleshing out sensory and emotional details.
The most successful fiction authors, it seems, never emerge out of academia as professionally trained writers. Cornwell worked for BBC, Clancy sold insurance, Grisham was a lawyer. How did you get where you are?
Pressfield: This is certainly true for me. I think real life is a much better teacher than school. Storytellers are born, not made. A writer can definitely know too much. Have you read my book about writing, “The War of Art?” It talks about Resistance with a capital “R,” which I define as all those insidious forces of self-sabotage that stop the writer from just sitting down and getting on with it. Studying writing is one of the great ways to avoid writing. I try to stay as dumb as possible and as fearless as I can make myself.
Saylor: My first published story was a contest-winner in a Methodist youth magazine, when I was 14. I saw my words in print, got paid $25, and was hooked. (That story is at my Web site.) I majored in History at the University of Texas at Austin, but I did take one creative writing class; it was helpful because it made me write to a deadline and also forced me to show my work to my teacher and classmates; for the beginning writer, it is very difficult to imagine that an audience actually exists and will react to what you write. After college, all though my twenties, my true apprenticeship was writing erotica. It’s an open secret, and any reader who is curious can find my pen name on the Web. No Muse was ever more demanding, because to write really good erotica you can’t hit a single false note, or else the whole thing falls flat. While conveying visceral sensations and complex states of mind, you must also vividly describe the relative motions of human bodies through space and time; if you can master that technical challenge, describing a battle scene or capturing Caesar’s doubts before crossing the Rubicon is a cakewalk.
Tom Wolfe recently described his critics as members of a “charming aristocracy” that despises his novels because, “in order to prove that you are an aristocrat of taste, you have to like things that the great mass of humanity can’t understand.” Stephen King’s term for these critics was “enlightened cognoscenti.” How has your work been received by what one might call the literary establishment?
Pressfield: Surprisingly, the lit establishment has been very kind to me. The New York Times reviewed “Gates of Fire” not once but twice, and the second was a rave in the Sunday Book Section. That piece singlehandedly made it a best-seller. Even the New Yorker said good things under “Briefly Noted.” The guys who hate my stuff are academic historians. I can’t blame them really. Historical novelists are definitely stepchildren, if not outright bastards, in the halls of Academia. (I consider that a compliment, by the way.)
Saylor: In the US, historical novels are often dismissed as less serious than novels of psychological realism. In some other countries I’ve been to, such as Portugal and Hungary, where my novels are bestsellers, historical fiction is taken much more seriously. Also, I’ve been more generously reviewed in the UK (in places like the Times Literary Supplement) than in the US (where The New York Times largely ignores my books). For the most part, I have no complaints with the critics, because when I do get reviews they are usually favorable. More important, to me, is that my work has been embraced by academia; the novels are assigned in the US and Europe as supplemental reading by Latin teachers and history professors, and I get invitations to speak at places like The Getty Villa and the University of Oslo. It seems that my research is rigorous enough to please professional historians and Classicists, the readers best equipped to judge my ideas about the ancient world.