Welcome back, folks, as I interview Terrance D. Williamson, the author of The Pagan & The Jew: The Jewish Rebellion against the Roman Empire. I did a review of his book last week, which you can find here. I wanted to give you the chance to get to know him.
**WARNING** The following interview may contain spoilers. **WARNING**
Jessica: Well, I know you, but my readers don’t. Tell me about yourself.
Terrance: I generally find it difficult to describe myself, but I suppose most of us with a healthy dose of self-consciousness do. As the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” I seem to think that my views may not be all that sought after, but I’ll push that aside and do my best. Pity, after all, is a limited resource; if you use it all on yourself there won’t be any left over for others.
Born and raised in the humble city of Regina, SK, I’m happy to call this place my home as it comes with the best of friends a man could ask for, the most beautiful wife a husband could somehow ensnare, and the most sacrificing parents a desperate son can look to at any time and in any place. What else is there that matters? Warm beaches and clear skies? Actually, yes, that sounds much better now that I think of it.
I enjoy writing (obviously) but not all of it is in the literary sense. My wife is equipped with a voice that many have come to describe as ‘the songbird of her generation’ (Will Ferrell reference) and together we have released three albums and toured most of SK. We have beautiful children that I hope will someday learn to appreciate my sense of humor. That is me as far as I can tell. If you know me better, please elaborate. *winks*
You forgot to mention handsome, but I digress. What inspired you to start writing?
T: I love history and reading about the lives of those who have gone on before us. For some reason I find a sort of connection understanding that while they lived ages ago, they are still bound to the same trials and temptations as us. Others may find this sense of commonality with a colleague, I tend to find it in books, as my introverted temperament dictates. During my reading, I came across the eyewitness account of Flavius Josephus and I was stunned to find the historical fiction world was nearly void of an adaption. I charged myself with the undertaking and have thoroughly enjoyed the process!
How long have you considered yourself a writer?
T: As long as there has been breath in my lungs. I kid, I kid, but in all seriousness that is difficult to pinpoint as my nature comes with a creative disposition, so I have always been ‘writing’. Unfortunately, this also means I have inspired some rather negative outputs in the form of a few seriously misguided songs and poems – I believe my wife has kept a handful of my adolescent poems, but every now and then I’ve created something that I’m proud of. To answer the question head on, I would say once I began this book and seriously considered a career in writing is when I would have considered myself a writer.
Okay, so tell me about The Pagan & The Jew. Is it your first novel?
T: It’s my first historical fiction, yes. The story begins in ancient Rome and the reader follows Titus as he meets the mad Emperor Nero and witnesses the heights – and depths – of hedonism. Nero then orders Titus to collect his father from retirement to crush the Jewish uprising in Judea with three legions. Vespasian’s ambitions, however, far outreaches that of defeating a rebellion; his sights are set on the throne. Feigning obedience, and with a scheme developed by Titus, they take upon the martial mantle with the hopes of securing the east under their banner and enacting a plot to overthrow Nero. Matters are only complicated with Titus falls in love with a Jewish princess, Bernice, who helps him to understand the plight of the Hebrews.
Awaiting them on the other side of the world is the underestimated opponent named Josephus. Recently promoted to General of the Galilean forces, Josephus is burdened with the impossible task of defending Israel against the coming retribution. At the stronghold of Jotapata, Josephus stirs the ill-armed, yet courageous Jews to resist the onslaught of the pagans in heroic fashion. Not only does Josephus have to concern himself with the Romans, but he also has to deal with internal factions that are threatening to tear Israel apart before the enemy even arrives.
How long did it take you to write the book? What was your writing process like?
T: Felt like it took ages, but I started in Sept 2017. I was new to the process of fiction so working out some of the kinks was difficult. I seem to learn something new every time I sit down to write which can be both infuriating and inspiring. Basically, my method is a quiet room free of distractions which is usually done on my breaks at work. But the best place – I smile even thinking about it – is the writing desk we have at home. I close the blinds, sit down, turn on the little lamp, and the world disappears as I lose myself in the creation before me. Its cozy, its perfect.
So, how much of the book is true? How much liberty did you take with characters and plot points?
T: History enthusiasts will appreciate that the overall story is pretty on point. Now, I had to deviate in some areas for artistic license, but the best parts are taken directly from Josephus. I also read between the lines in some areas. For example, **SPOILER ALERT** with the suicide pact at the end of the book, Josephus writes that his survival was ‘either by providence or by chance’ which I felt was a clear sign of a guilty conscience and he had orchestrated his escape. Bernice and Titus did have an affair, but Josephus doesn’t mention much else with them, so I had to get creative in generating motives and such. Other than that, there are parts where I’ve combined two events into one so that the story progresses naturally. I mean, over ten chapters are dedicated to a siege, so I had to find ways to keep interest and move the story along.
Well, I can attest that you achieved that. What sort of research did you do to make sure that you were staying true to history?
T: The nice thing about this story is that most of what Josephus wrote himself survives today. At least, that is, the Greek version of his collection entitled The Jewish War survived. With the Aramaic version (the language the Jews spoke) that didn’t survive, most historians assume Josephus doesn’t flatter the Romans nearly as much, but he wrote both versions while he was in Rome and the Greek versions (Romans mostly spoke Greek) were widely circulated. I can imagine he had to be ‘political’ with his writings and Vespasian isn’t demonized – not directly that is – even though he was responsible for nearly a million Jewish deaths. For example, at Magdala, Josephus writes that Vespasian’s advisors convinced him that no action taken against the Jews would be impious. Again, it feels to me that Josephus is simply shifting the blame to Vespasian’s advisors, even though Vespasian did give the orders to massacre and enslave the entire population.
Speaking of massacres and slavery, what are some of the ethical considerations you have to think about when writing about historical figures?
T: Because Vespasian released a ‘campaign of terror’ upon the Jews, I didn’t want to write anything that would seem to glorify the mass rape and murder. Of course, as a writer you want to be detailed for the point of affect, but I felt less is more in this case. You’d have to contain no empathy at all if you failed to understand what it would mean to be in those situations. I also felt I had to read between the lines in some cases – such as the example above with the suicide pact, but for the most part I’m confident I got the characters right. Also, Vespasian is a terrible person, but I like his character and finding a good balance to keep him interesting without him becoming a token ‘bad guy’ was difficult. I tried to keep in mind what Stephen King wrote about evil characters, “Even murderers sometimes help old ladies across the street.” The devil is a lot more like you than you know.
That is definitely true. What was the hardest scene to write? The easiest?
T: The hardest scene to write was probably all of chapter V. I think I re-wrote that one 12 times at least. I knew Mucianus’ motivation, what Bernice and Agrippa needed, and I had everything lined up, but how I was going to unravel the events kept eluding me. Overall, I’m not the greatest at describing a setting, nor do I enjoy it. Where my passion truly lies is within dialogue which I feel is my strong point. On the off chance I will read fiction, I am captivated by a conversation, but I generally breeze over descriptions – especially long-winded ones – so I decided to write the book the way I would like to read it. I don’t need to describe to you what a Roman soldier looks like – you already have that image in your head. That was my complaint with Tolkien’s works. Honestly, who cares what a plateau looks like? If you say ‘plateau’ you’ve already got a picture in your head. If you describe the plateau then it will mesh with what my brain is already referencing. It’s pointless really. I wanted to hear more about Gimli and Legolas cutting down orcs with hateful vengeance!
I don’t know if I had an ‘easiest’ scene to write but the most enjoyable scenes would have been John’s attempt on Josephus’ life or when Valerian reveals that he is a Jew.
What did you edit out of the book?
T: Nothing I care to repeat. While that may sound rude and blunt, its more from embarrassment than anything. There was actually one interaction between Helen and Simon that I re-wrote at the last minute, yet even now my cheeks have turned crimson at idea of having left that portion in there without revision. Honestly, the first versions of my book look quite different compared to the finished product. There were parts here and there I took out, but the overall story stayed the same.
After reading the book, I realized that there is to be a sequel. Do you have a projected finish or publication date for it yet?
T: I’m hoping to have the book finished by this time next year. I’m getting faster at the process and challenging myself to write one book per year. It’s also a bit easier with the next book as the characters are already established and there are only a few new characters to be introduced.
Do you want each book to stand on its own or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
T: My plan is to have a two-book series for The Pagan & The Jew, then I’ll look to other horizons in the historical fiction world. There are so many stories that no one has ever heard yet they form the archetypes for our lives and society. I would go deeper into this but the psychology behind their influence would be a book in and of itself.
I know it was only recently published, but have you read the reviews of your book so far?
T: You are my first!! Yay!!
I’m glad you liked my review. Are you worried that there may be negative reviews?
T: I suppose every honest author is, mainly because it can be quite difficult to self criticize parts that I have read over and over and over again. Its just like our music, after about one hundred and fifty-three listens to the song to fix all the errors you end up never wanting to hear it again. Comedians, I’m sure, have the same problem. Tell a joke once and its hilarious, but by the fifty-seventh time you begin to wonder why it was ever funny.
On May 5, 2018, The Pagan & The Jew had reached 7th place on Amazon’s Historical Fiction charts. How does it feel that your book has quickly climbed the chart?
T: It’s already fallen off the charts!! **laughs** I’m not even ranking anymore so now it hurts. **pouts** But I had reasonable expectations that this would happen. I’m still trying my hand at advertising and other marketing venues, but to be honest, I’m going to return to my original plan of seeking traditional publishing. Being a self-published author is 90% marketing and 10% writing, which kills the pleasure of the craft.
Other than that, how was the process of self-publishing through Amazon?
T: A learning curve to be sure. I had to reformat the book paragraph by paragraph in order to get it onto the ebook. Only took a couple hours, but still, understanding what needed to happen took a couple evenings of near hair-pulling frustration. The process is not entirely user friendly.
**Tries not to laugh at ‘hair-pulling frustration’** **subtly changes the subject** What can you tell me about the cover art?
T: It’s a painting about the fall of Jerusalem but I thought it worked well for the cover as you gain a sense as to what the book is about. You see the Romans and the carnage and the menorah and the painting tells quite a bit of the story.
Finally, if you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would you say?
T: That I recycle most of what I write. For example, as I discussed above about Chapter V, I re-wrote that chapter a good dozen times. I just couldn’t get it to look the way I wanted. That being said, however, I re-used most of what I had already written – I just rearranged portions here and there. Now I’m taking that advise with my next book and not getting too overwhelmed or frustrated because I understand that if I go back over the section or chapter and I’m not impressed with it, I know that I will not ‘chuck’ the whole thing and it won’t necessarily be counted as wasted time.
Anything you would like to add?
T: 10 points for Gryffindor!!
Only 10 points?
T: You can give more than 10?!?
A huge thank you to Terrance for agreeing to be my interview guinea pig. I had fun doing this interview with him and looking forward to reading the sequel.
If you ignored the spoiler warning and ended up here anyway: to purchase The Pagan & The Jew, click here. To check out Terrance’s website, click here and his History Repeated Facebook page can be found here.
**No work friendships were harmed in the making of this interview.**