Friday, April 1, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Gary Corby

The Novel Road Interview: Gary Corby

    Marked well, are we by the past. Stories and legends told again, then again. The teller tells by different eye, yet draws on history’s ground for reality. How many times do we see the Iliad told, applied to this time and place? Shakespeare cast both comic and tragic view, touching generations from centuries past till now and on into the next.
   Looking for a different tale? You came to the right place.
  My guest today holds his history dear. So much so that he has been able to make it come alive in his ingenious, fast paced Historical Mystery, placed in ancient Greece. His book is quite literally one you won’t want to put down, let alone ever lend.


  Gary Corby is the author of “The Pericles Commission”, a great “who dun-it” that will have you walking the streets of ancient Athens using the best blue screen in the world: Your imagination. You will run wild with rich detail that Gary provides and leaves you wanting more.
  His background in Mathematics and Computers, added to autodidactic love of history has both grounded and qualified him to convey his rich historic message. His sense of humor? We’ll have to thank DNA, because it rises again and again throughout the book.
  He’s traveled the world, and no doubt been asked to leave more than one of the world’s great museums at closing time. The rumors that he is searched each time he leaves the Louvre and the British Museum, I’m sure has no basis. But look at his picture! If that face doesn’t say “Guess what I just… Found”, then he is the jolliest man from down under that’s ever been… Did I mention he lives in Australia?

Gary Corby

Me: On your blog, I liked your observation, about how bizarre many events throughout history actually were. I often talk to people about events or opinions, in our current times, that they find unique or new, and point out historical references that prove their thoughts or situations have occurred before. Have you found this to be true as well?

Gary: Oh, definitely yes.  Technology changes throughout time, but people never change.  Love, fear, ambition, lust, anger, greed, cowardice and valor, intelligence and stupidity...those are the things that drive any society, and they're a constant.

Me: I think Nicolaos is an amazing character. You’ve wrapped him well in both time and circumstance. Talk about how you created his personality.

Gary: So many detectives are super-brains.  I did the opposite.  Poor Nico! His brother is a genius.  His boss is a genius.  His girlfriend is a genius.  He's just this average guy, trying to get along.  But he's the one expected to solve the riddles.
My choice was easy, because living in Classical Athens at the same time as Nicolaos were at least 12 world-class geniuses.  One more amongst that lot would go unnoticed.  But a normal person who has to get along with these brilliant and highly eccentric that's a story.  Nico's job is not only to solve crime, but to be our observer during one of the most critical periods in history.

Me: You hit the reader “sweet spot” in how you balanced the levels of historical fact vs. creativity. How hard was it to limit how much history you wanted include?

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Victoria, Australia
Gary: Of all the tough research problems a writer faces, the worst of all is leaving stuff out. You'd think it'd be the other way round, but it isn't so.  I could write a couple of pages on the drainage system of Athens in 460BC, but no one's going to read it.  People want to read story, and plot, and characters. Technical description is called exposition, and the rule for writers is, Research = Exposition, and Exposition = Death. What you can do, though, is write about the consequences of your research. For example, I know in Classical Athens sewerage pooled in gutters running down the middle of the street.

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When my hero Nicolaos is dragged off by a couple of thugs, something squishy which doesn't bear thinking about gets caught between his sandal and his foot, and he has to hop on the other foot while shaking the first to get it clear.  A whole day's research on drainage devolved into two lines of book text about a messy foot.  That's good, because a foot with poo on it is story and character, a treatise on drainage is not.
That's the right way to do it.
The wrong way is what I frequently catch myself doing.  In every book I've written a few paragraphs of explanation about the difference between a chiton, a chitoniskos, and an exomis.  And every book, I take those paragraphs out, because the explanation is exposition, and Exposition = Death. (If you're wondering, they're all different styles of clothing worn by Classical Greeks. I could tell you more, but that would be exposition.)
Me: Talk about editing your work. How did you know when to stop before you submitted?

Gary: I'm supposed to stop editing?  Damn, nobody told me that.
Here's the rule: we all have the ability to read two versions of a manuscript and decide which is better.  We have this ability to greater or lesser degree, but we all have it. When I reach the point where I'm unable to make a change that is definitely better than what I already have, then it's time to stop.  It doesn't mean the manuscript is ready.  It does mean I've written to the best of whatever ability I have.  When I have more ability or knowledge, I'll attack it again.
The version of Pericles Commission that went into production was major revision 18.

Me: Historical based Mysteries have had a very loyal following. I got hooked after my first Barbara Mertz (Elizabeth Peters) novel. Which authors have had an effect on your choice of genre and why?

Go to fullsize imageGary: I adore Elizabeth Peters!  Or rather her Amelia Peabody books, and the Vicky Bliss stories too.
Major influences...there are many:
The Flashman stories of George MacDonald Fraser, for the historical accuracy and the humor.
The Greek novels of Mary Renault, because they're the best novels of Ancient Greece ever written.
The Roman mysteries of Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, and John Maddox Roberts, because those three created the first mysteries set in the ancient world.
Ngaio Marsh, because she's the best of the writers from the hey day of traditional mysteries.  If I can plot a book to her standard, I'll be more than happy.
View ImageHerodotus.  For most people, The Histories is the world's first book of history; for me, it's a menu I can open at any page and find a new novel.
Thucydides.  He could teach Machiavelli a thing or two about power politics.  (In fact, he probably did.)  His writing makes modern thrillers look bland.
Aristophanes.  The greatest comic of the ancient world.  Simply hilarious.  I've tried to make the slapstick humor of my books approximate what the Greeks themselves saw when they went to laugh at the latest from Aristophanes.
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Janet Reid

Me: Talk about your agent and why the two of you are a perfect match?

Gary: Talk about Janet Reid?  That's like talking about a force of nature. I honestly had no idea how famous Janet was when I signed with her. Now I know.  When industry-insiders ask me who my agent is, and I reply, "Janet Reid", there's always this short pause of respectful silence.  Or perhaps it's sheer terror.
Janet is one of the most Internet-savvy of the agents, and to me at my distance, that is hugely attractive.  I'm not sure which of us suffers fools least; probably me, because she has infinite reserves of patience and knowledge when it comes to publishing.

Me: This question, courtesy of Jeff Hall : "I'm a shortstory-ist. Writing a novel is like a crazy long marathon, only harder. How do you maintain a clear sense of that first passion that inspired you throughout a 200K word journey?"

Gary: I don't want to be annoying, but I've never had a problem!  Perhaps it's because I don't outline.  When a twist appears in the story, I'm as surprised as you are.
A novel is a series of scenes, and each scene is like it's own little short story.  If you think of it like that, then writing a novel doesn't seem quite so daunting.

Go to fullsize imageMe: Publishing is going through an evolution right now. Talk about how this has or will affect you.
Gary: They probably worried the same amount when Gutenberg invented movable type.  All those out-of-work monastery copyists!  The Death of Publishing!  Etc etc etc.
I come from a background of doing high end software development. That's probably inoculated me against the future shock some people report.  From my point of view, when I started to learn about the publishing industry, it was like I'd taken a trip back into the 1970s.
 Publishing systems are currently struggling to reach the same state software was in during the 1990s, or maybe late 80s.  I look forward to joining the current millennium, one day.
In passing, I would dearly love to replace the senior management of major publishers everywhere with successful executives from technology startups (for strategic decisions) and people who've run chemical plants (for operations management).

Me: I see you have returned recently from a promotional tour, your first of many no doubt. Talk about how you were brought into this process. How involved were you in the choices being made?

Gary: Book tours were a foreign land to me.  I brought to it a level of cluelessness that was probably unsurpassed.  Luckily for me, that literary agent we just talked about used to be a book publicist. Janet saved me!
Stores are understandably not keen to talk directly to authors they've never heard of.  I can only imagine how many inappropriate requests they get.  So you really need a publicist to make the initial contacts.  In addition the stores need to slot in author visits to their schedules.  I wrote a long list of places I would have loved to visit.  Then we checked to see which stores in which places were interested and had free time.  Then we had to condense this down to a schedule that made sense!  The whole process is much, much more work than I would have imagined.

Sappho. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Me: You get to have lunch with any author, from throughout history or today. Who would it be and why?

Gary: Sappho.  She was considered the Tenth Muse by the Greeks, which tells you right there how brilliant she was, but alas her work is almost completely lost.  I'd make sure I left lunch with a signed edition of her complete works.

Me: The reviews for the Pericles Commission have been excellent. Amazon Bestseller. When can we expect your next novel?

Gary: You're right, the reviews have been really excellent.  (Says the author, modestly).  I'm shocked!
The next major release is The Pericles Commission in Australia, which will be the first week of January.  Then book 2 in the series, "The Ionia Sanction" releases in the US in either October or November 2011.
 The Ionia Sanction is set in the province of Ionia, which these days we'd call the west coast of Turkey.  The plan is a book a year.  I'm currently writing the third book, working title "Sacred Games", set at the Olympics of 460BC.

Go to fullsize imageMe: Give me a two sentence “Hook” for Pericles Commission.

Gary: "Nicolaos walks the mean streets of Classical Athens, keeping civilization safe from enemies both domestic and foreign."  There you go, I did it in one.

Me: Talk about life experience and how important it is to an author.

Gary: Two scenes in the next book, The Ionia Sanction, actually happened to me. There's no way I could have written this series in my twenties, because it requires the ability to step back and see people from a distance.  Perhaps I could have written different books, but not these ones.  If I'd been writing books back then, they would have been science fiction.
It interests me, and I've remarked before, that authors seem to hit their stride later in life than other artistic types.  I imagine the need for characterization, and the overriding need to have something fresh to say, drive that.

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Gary's first royalty