Interview with Russell Whitfield

Interview by Ghostofclayton

Russell is the author of the novels Gladiatrix and Roma Victrix. The first visceral adventure, set in 1st century Asia Minor, was suggested by the famous Gladiatrix stele found near Halicarnassus in the 19th century. Roma Victrix takes Lysandra to a new arena where she must face the greatest challenge of her life - a command performance to fight Aesalon Nocturna, the Midnight Falcon, Rome's adored Gladiatrix Prima.

UNRV: Your knowledge of various one-on-one combat disciplines comes through quite strongly in 'Gladiatrix' and most especially in 'Roma Victrix'. Is this from existing personal interests, or did you have to take special steps to learn (for example, joining a dojo)?
Russell Whitfield: Thanks very much – I put a bit of thought into those sequences as really, if the fighting parts don’t work, the book(s) fall flat. I’ve studied a few martial arts in my time, mostly Wing Chun. Wing Chun espouses attack and defence at the same time and also has a double-knife form, so when Lysandra fights as a dimachaeria, a lot of the stuff I learned in Wing Chun went into the descriptions. It’s the same with the stances that the gladiatrices use and their foot-work – that’s mostly Wing Chun, the circle-steps and all that sort of thing.

I’ve also done Silat, which again teaches you to fight with two swords, and I was doing that at the time of Roma Victrix. Wing Chun and Silat are different, of course, and the Silat stuff leaked into Roma Victrix. Maybe it reads like Lysandra’s picked up a few tricks along the way!

At the time I was writing ‘Gladiatrix’ I joined a gladiatorial re-enactment society which helped me work out how to fight with and against people with shields and so forth. As Svenja will tell you, there would have been little in the way of duelling with swords in a real gladiator fight, more like quick comings-together, lots of shield barging and frantic melees. But ultimately, these are works of fiction, and I didn’t think that 100% accuracy was the way to go with the fight sequences (and a fair few other bits as I’m sure you guys know!).

UNRV: References to classical Greek culture, religion, etc., are used very widely in both novels. Sufficiently widely for me to suspect that you have a particular interest in Ancient Greek History. Did this spring from your interest in the Romans, or was it the other way round? If the latter, why a novel set in ancient Rome, rather than Ancient Greece?
Russell Whitfield: Ancient Greece was (and I guess remains) my first love – I saw “The 300 Spartans” when I was very young on ITV and it changed my life. Literally, I couldn’t get enough of that stuff: I recall “losing” the novelised for young readers versions of the Iliad and Odyssey from Hounslow Library back in the 70s (sorry Hounslow Library), I used to devour the books by a guy called Ian Serraillier who did children’s versions of Greek Myths. As I grew up, that love of Ancient Greece never left me (imagine how crushed I was when the movie “300” came out and it was based on a graphic novel – and not a very good one at that!).

Why Ancient Rome? Well, now, that’s a good question because it really gets to the heart of why I wrote ‘Gladiatrix’ in the first place.

I’d read a series of historical fantasy novels that were set in Roman times which had such a brilliant premise – I mean, the idea totally blew me away. The concept was outstanding, it really was. But the books themselves just didn’t deliver – look, I’m sure many people enjoyed them, but they were not for me. I didn’t like the writing, it just didn’t work for me.

Now – I’d always been OK at English and I really wanted to write a novel – but, like many people, I’d started about a 100 and got three chapters in and then forgotten about it. But I made pact with myself on this “novel project.” I promised that I would finish it and do everything I could to get it published.

Getting published was the aim of the game for me – that may sound a bit above myself, but I really wanted to achieve this one thing so when I’m on my death-bed I can rest easy and not wish that I’d done something I always said I was going to do.

So – I did some research. I wanted to write a fantasy novel, but all the “How to Write a Novel” books (even the ones about “How to Write a Fantasy Novel”) either hinted at or outright stated that first time fantasists had little chance of getting noticed. The internet has a lot to do with that, I think, there are so many role-players out there writing so much stuff that your fantasy novel has to be really brilliant to get a look in – and let’s face it, it’s not like I’m really brilliant, so I scratched that off as a bad idea.

I thought about things that interested me and crucially, what I thought people with similar interests would want out of a novel. So Ancient History – Check. Spartans - Check. I know about them, but whoever writes anything set in Sparta is going to be compared to Stephen Pressfield. And that’s not going to help a prospective novelist – the man’s a genius.

But I wanted to have a Spartan in my novel – because it was my novel and I was going to have to be into it to write it, so, damn the torpedoes, I was going to have a Spartan in it. Now – what else do I like – well, women that can kick ass. From Ripley through Sarah Connor, Lara Croft… there’s always a market for women who can hold their own, so I thought “Great – Spartan Woman who can Kick Ass.”

But, having made the decision to go down the “Historical Fiction” route, I knew already that my options in Classical Greece were going to be severely limited. It’s not like I could have a woman secretly training with the fabled “300” and turning up at Thermopolaye, I didn’t want to do Amazons because they’d been done to death (and Pressfield had done one about them too, so again, you’re on thin ice!).

Then I saw a documentary on the telly called “Gladiator Girl” and I had my eureka moment. Sparta was a Roman “protectorate” having inexplicably sided with Octavian in the Civil War, the Spartan way of life existed as something of a tourist attraction for Romans at the time… and Romans liked gladiators and I knew that there were female gladiators… so that’s why my Spartan had to be in Ancient Roman times. That situation then informed how Lysandra’s character developed.

OK, I made up the whole “Temple of Athene” thing – that never existed, but I figured that the Archidamia story of women fighting against Pyrrhus (or at least helping on the walls, but Wikipedia says “fighting” so that must be 100% accurate, right!), so I went with the idea of her Athene cult being set up because of that event – even the aspects of the Goddess fitted. And the Goddess Athene has a personal resonance with me, so it was very important to me to have her featured in the books.

So, now we have our warrior-priestess-heroine from Sparta – a failed super-power living in the shadow of the current super-power, who’s been brought up in the old-fashioned way – hence she’s our arrogant Lysandra who exists in Ancient Rome, worshipping Athene above all others and becomes a Gladiatrix…so – yeah…that’s why Ancient Rome (whew, went off on one there!).

UNRV: In the acknowledgements section, you allude to the fact that there may be more to come. What writing projects do you have on the go at the moment, and will they be part of the same series?
Russell Whitfield: I think our Lysandra has come to the end of her adventures if I’m honest. With the best will in the world, there’s only so much you can do with a female lead in 1st Century Rome, even if I really bend the historical rules. One thing I never wanted to do was go back and re-tread the same stories with Lysandra, but with that comes the inevitable knowledge that her tale must end sooner or later.

Other writing projects – yes, I’ve got a few on the boil at the moment. I’ve written a pilot for a Roman-set telly series which will be doing the rounds soon, I’ve just re-written the script for a lo-fi British Horror Comedy and have nearly completed an action movie, the latter two “on the slate” for the Cannes Film Festival.

“On the Slate”, I’ve just learned, is industry speak for the director goes around mugging people in an attempt to get money to make the films. It’s all very speculative, if I’m honest, but it’s a tremendous honour to be asked to be involved in that sort of thing.

Next, I’d like to write a historical fantasy series of novels. That’d be good fun, I reckon, and it’d kind of take me full circle and I’ve also got an idea for a historical-horror movie as well.

UNRV: Have you shown this book to your Mum?
Russell Whitfield: Sadly, Mum passed on before the first book came out – but I’m sure that she’d have been both proud and appalled!

UNRV: Thank you for your time!

Russell Whitfield was born in Shepherds Bush in 1971. An only child, he was raised in Hounslow, West London, but has since escaped to Ham in Surrey.

Russell has had an (almost) life long fascination with ancient Greece and Rome, sparked by seeing The Three Hundred Spartans on ITV in the seventies. Educated to A-Level, he did not complete college, preferring instead to seek fame and fortune in a heavy metal band. Sadly, fame and fortune were not forthcoming and a career in telesales beckoned. A series of jobs followed culminating in the heady heights of 'content editor' for a large multi-national.

Gladiatrix was Russ's first novel, published in 2008 by Myrmidon Books. The sequel, Roma Victrix, continues the adventures Lysandra, the Spartan gladiatrix, and a third book is planned for release late 2011/early 2012.

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