(I can’t imagine my life absent the inspiring magic of good stories and good storytellers. In fact, this blog is largely devoted to making an appropriate fuss over the yarn-spinners of yore. Through periodic author interviews, I also celebrate contemporary practitioners of this most magical of arts.--Dan Pollock)
On his website G. J. Berger recalls when, at the age of eight, “his mom told him the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and a great army. He asked her what happened to Hannibal after that. Mom didn’t know, but he was hooked, had to find out, had to write about it.”
The result is a series of richly envisioned historical novels set in Roman times, full of adrenalizing adventure and the fascinating texture of daily life in another age. The first of these, South of Burnt Rocks – West of the Moon, tells the epic story of Lavena, a young Iberian-Celtic “she-warrior” who makes a stand against an invading Roman army.
The tale makes for about as exciting historical fiction as I can recall, with the kind of cinematic set-pieces I relish in the works of Rafael Sabatini and C. S. Forester. I use the term “cinematic” advisedly—Burnt Rocks has major big-screen potential; without too much tongue in cheek, I’d pitch it as Gladiator Meets Thelma and Louise.
So let’s cut to the chase—my interview with G. J. Berger.
|G. J. Berger in a reconstructed Iberian village.|
D.P.: What about it? Have you thought of pitching your intrepid “she-warrior” to Hollywood? If not, why not?
G.J.: Others have said they see it as a movie. And that’s a common line among readers these days of almost any interesting fiction. We are much more a movie culture than book culture. I did not think of it as a movie while writing it. But I have heard writers say that script writing is good training for novel writing--helps in dialogue, scene setting and keeping a good pace.
D.P.: Whom do you see as your leading lady?
G.J.: I guess I’d need to search for Jennifer Lawrence’s younger sister..
D.P.: What led you to make your main character a girl?
G.J.: In 2008, I had a charming agent. After she sent my first historical off to editors, we mused about what next. I told her of my fascination with the tribal warriors who resisted the plundering might of Rome. She said, “Sure, but make your MC a woman. Far more women buy books about women than the other way around.” After a moment’s pause, I said, “I can make that work. I’ll write about his daughter.” And the main character is indeed the daughter of the tribal leader I had envisioned then.
D.P.: You have many strong women characters – exceptionally so. Will this be characteristic of the prequels and sequels in this saga you are telling?
G.J.: No, at least not intentionally. The prequel has one very strong female MC, but the hero is a boy who grows up fast.
D.P.: When you were a schoolboy, perhaps reading Caesar’s Commentaries, did your imagination take flight?
G.J.: I did not take Latin or read Caesar’s Commentaries. But I’ve always been drawn to works about powerful figures of the past—fictionalized or real. At age eleven, I devoured The Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy.
D.P.: What are some of your favorite source works for the Roman era?
G.J.: Translations of historical writings from back then. The work of Polybius has been helpful, though he was a Greek captured by Rome. There’s a wonderful series of "Daily Life" books by various authors on ancient people and places (India, Rome, Greece, etc.).
|Australian writer Markus Suzak|
D.P.: What writers have influenced your writing most?
G.J.: My mother, Markus Suzak, Jack London, Cormac McCarthy, Nikos Kazantzakis and others. Suzak says he tries to give the reader something special on every page. My mom, paraphrasing Goethe, said good writing “reaches into the full human life and grabs hold.” All men, I notice, with the notable exception of my mom. I must pick up one of the Twilight books or Fifty Shades of Gray—but then I wouldn’t have the foggiest what to do with it.
D.P.: Let's skate past that one. What books are you reading now?
G.J.: I recently finished The Kiss, a novel by poet Adrienne Silcock, which takes the reader on a journey of the soul as its four main characters discover who they are--and who they can never become. Then I read your Lair of the Fox, which wraps heroes and villains into an intense conflict straight out of a good James Bond film. In between those, I finished Grisham’s The Client.
D.P.: Thanks for the plug—in fact, I’m definitely going to quote you. What other kinds of things do you read for pleasure?
G.J.: Sports Illustrated and almost anything. Good writing transports the reader to places, people and times without the reader’s awareness. I’m often surprised by fine writing and good stories previously unknown to me--and disappointed by best sellers.
D.P.: Do you write from a plot outline or do you prefer to let your characters lead you?
G.J.: I start with my main character in a specific place, about to do or experience something that I’ve been thinking about in all its details. I begin with the first few words. Those words push out the next. The last sentence I’ve written pushes out the next. The characters don’t lead me. For my historical novels the major events do frame my story and characters, and I try to stay true to the tides of history.
D.P.: When do you write?
G.J.: No set time.
D.P.: Do you log your daily output?
G.J.: Not in a direct sense. But I get antsy when I’m not on pace to complete the novel in roughly two years after the very first word. I have learned one trick to make each writing session productive. I try never to quit a writing session unless I’ve got the next sentence, paragraph or even scene in my head and ready to put to paper. That lets me open the computer in my next writing session and plunge ahead without staring at a blank screen.
D.P.: Great advice! How many hours does it usually take to make your daily output?
G.J.: My meter does not measure a daily output, though one good page a day, every day, is a worthy goal. That yields a close-to-finished novel in about one year.
D.P.: Do you research on the fly?
G.J.: For tiny details, yes. If I suddenly need to know how a farm implement works, I’ll research that as I go. For larger points—village life in times past, religious beliefs—I might spend months reading everything I can get my hands on before I dare write about it.
D.P.: How much time do you allot to marketing?
G.J.: No set amount of time. But my marketing senses are always on alert for opportunities to help other writers or to participate in conferences or groups. The best marketing for me has come from friends and other writers whom I have encouraged or perhaps helped on their way.
D.P.: Do you write in public (Starbucks, say) or strictly in private?
G.J.: I’ve never written in any public place—nor would I, unless I was writing a scene taking place at a Starbucks. For me, solitude works best for writing, a terribly selfish, reclusive and unfriendly endeavor.
D.P.: Do you write on more than one (fiction) project at a time? Can you juggle?
G.J.: I have bounced from project to project, but I don’t like to.
D.P.: Do you jump around in your narrative or write straight through?
G.J.: Straight through, but the very next sentence may cause a change 100 pages earlier, and I’ll go back and make the change as I go. In my recently published novel, the original beginning now sits about seventy pages in. I had to add more about the heroine’s young life before my original point of beginning, but that realization came after I was well into it.
D.P.: Have you always wanted to write?
G.J.: My single mom wrote as much as she could, and that made it easy and accepted for me to write at an early age. Later, I discovered that writing—any creative activity—is both fun and relaxing.
D.P.: Are there other genres you’d like to explore?
G.J.: Though my first published novel is a historical and the next likely will be another, my first finished novel was a psychological thriller. I expect that historicals and thrillers will fill up all my writing time.
D.P.: Thank you, G.J. Berger!
SOUTH OF BURNT ROCKS – WEST OF THE MOON (from G.J. Berger's website):
"After three great wars, Rome has crushed Carthage. Now the undefended riches of Iberia beckon: gold, tin, olives, wine, and healthy young bodies to enslave. Burnt Rocks tells the story of Lavena, last child of the strongest remaining Iberian tribal leader at a time when Rome plunders and loots her land. Based on real characters and events, Burnt Rocks recreates that shadowy history."
G. J. spent much of his young life on the road and at sea. often working as a crew member on a tramp steamer. Wherever his travels took him, old walls, canals, even storage holes deep in the ground, made him wonder about how they got there, about the people who built them, how they lived and got along.
When not writing, G. J. tries to roam around the places he writes about, likes to sit and soak up the times back then and bring them to modern life in his stories. G. J. is convinced that for all the changes in last 2000 years, people loved and hated, suffered and rejoiced, destroyed and built the same ways then as they do today.