Wednesday 13th July 2016

Welcome to my occasional series featuring authors who write about international settings. Today it's the turn of Tim Taylor, whose first book illustrated below covered historical Greece.  Just the place for warm summer nights with a glass of cool retsina.  Here's Tim to tell us all about it.
Hello Olga, many thanks for inviting me onto your blog today.

I am at a disadvantage in comparison to some of your other visitors, in that it is a good few years since I last visited Greece. It is nevertheless a country I love, and I retain many vivid and treasured memories of it. Though its landscape and coast are hauntingly beautiful, perhaps the greatest thing about Greece is the fourth dimension provided by layer upon layer of history. That history, together with the legends and mythology which surround it and the cultural and intellectual achievements it spawned, has fascinated me since childhood. I studied ancient Greece at university, so have a good general knowledge of the period, but such is the richness of the history that by looking a little closer one can always find something new in it.
Fascinating. So, what led to your story?
I was reading a book about Sparta, in which I happened upon a section about the Messenians: a people who inhabited the south-western part of the Peloponnese peninsula. In the eighth century BC Messenia was invaded by the neighbouring Spartans and its inhabitants turned into ‘helot’ slaves, a condition in which they remained for centuries to come, except during their occasional revolts. I was already aware of the Messenians, their helot status and brutal subjection inflicted on them by Sparta. However, reading about them afresh, I was particularly struck by the fact that they never lost their sense of nationhood or their desire to reclaim their land, even after many had fled Messenia to settle elsewhere. Everybody knows about the Spartans and their martial prowess; few people know much about those unfortunate neighbours whose enslavement made Sparta’s full-time dedication to the arts of war both possible and necessary. It struck me that the Messenians’ story was crying out to be told. And my next thought, of course, was ‘well, I suppose I had better tell it, then!’
This touches right at the heart of classical story-telling. How did you plan the plot?
I decided to do so through the fictional story of Diocles, a young helot, forced to flee after an encounter with the Krypteia (a Spartan paramilitary force that spies on and murders helots). He encounters Aristomenes, an old rebel who still harbours dreams of revolt, and for want of a better option travels with him towards Delphi to seek advice from the oracle.  At Delphi, Diocles meets (historical) Theban general Epaminondas, who also has no love for Sparta; and travels with him to Thebes to learn the arts of politics and war.  He becomes involved in wider events which will eventually create the conditions for Diocles and Aristomenes to return to Messenia and begin their revolt in earnest.
The story thus takes the reader on a long journey through southern and central Greece. For some parts of that journey I had memories of my own to draw on.  For example, Delphi, in its stunning setting half way up a mountain with views all the way down to the sea, had made a powerful impression on me.  Even here, though, there was a complication: Delphi as it is now is not the same as it was in the fourth century BC. The ancient buildings, such as the temple of Apollo where the oracle gave her prophecies, are just ruins now (those columns you can see in the photo are all that still stands of it).  I needed to reconstruct them in imagination (and of course, to demolish the modern ones!).  There were other places that feature in the story which I had never visited at all, such as Mount Ithome, the ancient sanctuary of the Messenians (and the home of their patron God, Zeus Ithomatas), where the story begins and ends. Unfortunately, my budget didn’t run to a trip to Greece to spy out the locations I was unfamiliar with, much as I would have liked one! So what was I to do?  I found an invaluable resource in Google Earth, which enabled me to place myself in the landscape and follow the paths my characters travelled, seeing the shape of the terrain more or less as they would have seen it. Feedback from readers who have been to these places suggests that it is surprisingly accurate.

This must have taken painstaking research Tim?
No amount of internet trickery can fill out that ‘fourth dimension’, though. I felt it was important both to be true to the historical events I was depicting and to give a vivid and lifelike picture of a time and place; not just the setting, but how people lived and what they believed: for that, there is no substitute for research. It was far from being a chore. Reading about these things rekindled my love affair with Greek civilisation. But in doing so, it has created a desire that no amount of research or novel-writing can completely fulfil. As writing this piece has reminded me, I need to go back! 
I believe your story will whet the appetite of all armchair classicists who dream of ancient Greece, so thank you Tim for your interesting insights. How do we buy your work and find out more?
Zeus of Ithome page:!zeus-of-ithome/cb7u
Facebook author page:
Can you tell us a bit about your own background?
I was born in 1960 in Stoke-on-Trent. I studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford (and later Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London). After a couple of years playing in a rock band, I joined the Civil Service, eventually leaving in 2011 to spend more time writing.  I now live in Yorkshire with my wife Rosa and divide my time between creative writing, academic research and part-time teaching and other work for Leeds and Huddersfield Universities. My first novel, Zeus of Ithome, was published by Crooked Cat in November 2013; my second, Revolution Day in June 2015.  I also write poetry and the occasional short story, play guitar, and like to walk up hills.
Thank you Tim for visiting my blog today. Very enjoyable.

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