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The Wall at the Edge of the World
A novel of Roman Britain
A sequel to The Legions of the Mist
The Centurions series
The Legions of the Mist
(Amanda Cockrell writing as Damion Hunter)
Why the Romans...
My first introduction to the Romans and the start of my fascination with them was in college when a friend gave me Rosemary Sutcliff's young adult novels of Roman Britain, and her adult novel Sword at Sunset which is still one of the best books about the (possible) historical Arthur that I have read. My high school ancient history course had concentrated on wars and dates and famous men, with a brief survey of archaeological finds, and no sense at all of those old bones as having been actual people. I remembered something about Romans in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill and went back and read that too, and they started to come alive.
What I like about the Romans is how wonderfully and appallingly like us they are. They are the template for Western government but also for western colonialism, with their self-assured conviction that Roman civilization was a boon to any conquered territory. They had an appreciation for art and the wonders of earlier civilizations, and supported a thriving tourist industry to visit them and appropriate their antiques. They practiced the slavery that was common across the ancient world, although it was economically and not ethnically based, a slave might buy his or her freedom, and freedmen often rose to great power. Their taste for bloody games has only been tamped down in us, not extinguished, despite Seneca's conviction that watching violent death ate away a man's soul, and rotted it. And yet they survived, Republic and Empire, for a thousand years, through mad or bloodthirsty leaders, civil conflict, plagues, and endless wars.
My first novel was about the disappearance of the Ninth Legion somewhere in Britain, inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff's account of the same events. I have written a lot of books since, mainly historical fiction, but I seem always to come back to the Romans. Seneca also said that "Wherever the Roman conquers, there he dwells," and I think it is that that holds my interest: how the ones who settled in the far-flung provinces of the Empire, most often time-expired soldiers, married in, settled in, bred in, until they were part of the foundation of what that country became when Rome finally fell.
And then there's research, an endless source of delight and aggravation as new information is dug up, most often literally. You find that a fact you cheerfully used in a previous book is not accurate after all. A town whose Roman name you used liberally because a key scene was set there, is now, as you write a sequel, held to have been called something else entirely. But then you discover... the Roman tourist industry offering dubious souvenirs even before pieces of the True Cross have begun to circulate: A cyclops skull, Senator, only three sesterces!... an auxiliary ala in Syria mounted on camels... conspiracy theories circulating after Nero's death that he wasn't really dead, false Neros popping up like Elvis sightings. This is the kind of thing that makes me love the Romans.
My new book, The Wall at the Edge of the World, a sequel of sorts to Legions of the Mist, the Ninth Legion tale, opened up a new window for me: the weirdly counterintuitive world of Roman medicine. The Romans knew a lot but because they were forbidden to conduct autopsies, they knew how to operate for cataracts, for instance, but didn't recognize cancer or appendicitis. The Roman army was probably the best medical school in the empire, primarily because the only way to see someone's insides was if they had already been opened up for you by an enemy spear. Regarding the pharmaceutical remedies contained in this novel, I don't recommend trying any of them but they are all genuine, and I attempted to use mainly the ones that might have actually worked.
In the equally weird world of publishing, I wrote my first book under my own name, and the next three, The Centurions series, under the pseudonym Damion Hunter because they were done for a book packager who insisted on pseudonyms in case a writer got tired of a successful series and wanted to quit. In that event it could be given to another writer. Of course, what happened to me was that three books into a four-book series, my publisher was bought by another house which promptly cancelled all the original house's contracts. But when Canelo Publishing wanted to revive them, we kept the pseudonym for all because in the interim Damion Hunter had acquired a small and devoted following among Roman reenactors, to whom I will always be grateful. I hope they will be happy to know that I am now at work on the long-delayed fourth and final book of The Centurions.
Why we write at all...
I've thought a lot about why I write, why any of us write, realizing that it's been an extremely weird road to travel, and how often the mess that we pick up along the way, the odd shells and bottle caps, the detritus of our lives, turns into something on a page.
The first thing I ever wrote for pay was somebody's wedding story. I took a job in the summers between college with the local newspaper, with the idea of being Brenda Starr, girl reporter, and ended up in what was then known as the Women's Pages, or the Society Section, which was where nearly all girl reporters worked in those days. I spent hours calling up brides' mothers to explain that Society page policy required all unmarried attendants to be identified with "Miss" and married attendants by their husbands' names —Mrs. Bubba Kowalski.
My next writing assignment was a lot more fun. I went to work as a copywriter for a rock radio station, dreaming up 30- and 60-second spots for local clients in an office where a speaker played Top 40 rock all day. The disc jockeys adopted me as Little Mother. They sent me out for aspirin for their hangovers and left me to screen their groupies on the telephone. I felt like Wendy. In the meantime, I wrote 30-second spots for Billy Bob's Bail Bonds, ads for the spring bathing suit line at the local department store, and Singing Pickle commercials for Custer's Last Sandwich Stand. The Singing Pickles were the afternoon drive disk jockey singing four-part harmony with himself, speeded up. Mostly they sang classics with new lyrics. At Christmas we did "Hark the Herald Pickles Sing" — "Welcome in the Sandwich King, mayonnaise and mustard mild, two for man and one for child." Not every one was a Grammy winner. We tried "I come on the sloop Roast Beef" but couldn't think of any rhyme but "my grandmother's false teeth" so we gave up on it.
In the meantime I managed to write, and more miraculously, sell, my first novel, a tale of Roman Britain in which the hero died at the end. And which went straight to the bottom of the charts. The paperback rights didn't even sell. But it did get me a contract with a paperback book packager, where they thought up ideas, some more plausible than others, for multi-volume series of historical adventure or romance novels, pitched them to publishers and then hired writers to write them under various pseudonyms. I quit the job at the radio station and settled down to write two books a year. I had strict instructions not to kill off my hero again.
I wrote three Roman books for them, for which I got fan mail from Roman reenactors. I wrote two Viking adventures during which I had a long, ongoing argument with the mad genius who was founder and head of the firm, as to whether or not my Vikings were going to battle a sea serpent in their travels. He didn't care whether sea serpents existed or not, he just liked the idea. He sent me clippings from "Ripley's Believe It or Not." I pointed out that those were sea snakes and only two feet long. We finally compromised on a giant squid. He used to say he was the idea guy, and some of his ideas were doozies. He didn't care about historical accuracy — his favorite phrase was "We can put in a disclaimer" — he cared about excitement and danger and beautiful maidens wearing fabulous jewels, preferably being rescued by ninjas. He once asked me to give him an outline for a book about a ninja going west with an American wagon train in 1750. I pointed out that in Roanoke, Virginia, I was sitting on what was the frontier in 1750. He said we could put in a disclaimer. I talked him out of it, but I think he got someone else to write it.
Once when I really needed money, I wrote a seething, steaming plantation saga for them, but I had trouble with the sex scenes. I kept running out of things for them to do. I'd write a scene and my editor at the firm would spice it up for me. I'd take back out anything I just couldn't stand, and then she'd call me on the phone from the office kitchen, where the male editors couldn't hear the conversation, and we'd reach a compromise. Sex under a waterfall, yes. Throbbing anything, no.
The last thing I did for them was a spin-off of one of their previous series, a frontier saga. Up until I took it over, it had been written by two different male writers, and all the main female characters had been reformed whores. The boys had gone a little light on their research as well. In the first book of the series, a wagon train encounters a village of prairie dogs and, apparently under the impression that prairie dogs are actually dogs, the author had gone on for some time about their big feet and floppy ears, and had one of his reformed whores adopt a puppy. Not only that, the demon who waits for writers who don't do their research had prompted him to go on for several more pages about how training prairie dog puppies had softened the heart of a tough ex-outlaw in prison. I was laughing so hard I could hardly hold the telephone when I called my editor to ask how that had got by them, and by the publisher's editor, and into print. "Haven't any of you Yankees ever seen a prairie dog?" I asked. There was a strained silence. "Yes. We got letters," she said, clearly not wishing to take it any farther.
I still have a copy of that book. I use it as a cautionary tale for my writing students.
All of these projects have made me a better writer, I think. I have written a lot of other books since. But every single piece of pot boiling taught me something that I could use. There is economy to be learned from fitting your message into thirty seconds. The power of a fresh turn of phrase or an interesting word choice is made clear when you write your thirtieth wedding announcement of the week. It takes some skill to make a reader believe in a giant squid, and love a hero whose job requires him to pillage monasteries.
Since then, I have published a number of other novels that speak to the things that interest me: love, loyalty, and the exploding cigars that are the gods' gifts to us. And of all things, the Roman novels have been resurrected and are back in print, along with my first Roman Britain novel, capitalizing on that old pseudonym which gained fans and name recognition over the years.
But I wouldn't part with the Singing Pickles and the prairie dogs for anything.