Interview with Simon Jones, author of Fall of Empires
MF: As a self-declared history buff, do you recall what first drove your interests backward in time?
SJ: I have been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember. As a very young boy I remember my father and grandfather spending hours with me playing with toy soldiers and telling me stories from history. My grandfather made a replica warship out of a tea trolley with sections of broomstick for cannons and a hidden cassette player inside which played ‘Hearts of Oak’. He also built a replica Saturn V and a mock up of the surface of the moon which covered the entire dining room table and taught me about the space race. My parents took me all over the place to castles and museums and my Mum, who also loves history, encouraged me to read historical books from an early age. I also had a wonderful history teacher, Mr Bastable, who could make even the dull bits of history interesting. With all those great influences I was always going to grow up loving history.
MF: It certainly sounds as if you were primed by your upbringing to love history! Have you travelled to many of the locations relevant to your books? Which one(s) inspired you the most?
SJ: I have been fortunate to have travelled to lots of great historical sites around the world although there are still lots more on my list. Visiting Egypt and Rome whilst writing ‘The Battles are the Best Bits’ were hugely inspirational and I incorporated my memories of those visits into the book. There is something very powerful about standing on the very spot where great events happened and you can feel the resonance of them somehow. Sadly most of Fall of Empires takes place in Syria and Iraq which are not very tourist friendly these days. I have been to Istanbul which also features heavily, though apart from the Hagia Sofia and the walls there is not much left of the old Byzantine Constantinople.
MF: That is so true about historical sites. You can definitely feel their complexity. When you read about an historical period, do you typically picture yourself living during that time?
SJ: I think you have to. Not in a fantasizing sort of way but in terms of your outlook, your values and your expectations. I don’t think you can write objectively about history either as fiction or non-fiction unless you take a step back from your 21st century based values and judge people and events by the standards of the time in which they occurred. In ‘The Battles are the Best Bits’ I found myself justifying acts of slaughter which today would be judged as war-crimes as perfectly reasonable actions under the circumstances. The ancient world was a much more violent place than the modern world and human rights and the value of human life were seen very differently. This was a world in which the destruction of an entire city and the slaughter, rape and enslavement of its population was a legitimate act of war. To write about this period effectively you have to remove yourself somewhat from the here and now. Dealing with these events objectively I think gives them even greater impact in the mind of the modern reader.
MF: The context is definitely a huge factor that takes some effort to understand. Even today cultural differences prevent many from understanding others’ actions.
Your book “Fall of Empires” earned over 280,000 reads on Wattpad, which is amazing! At what point did you decide to take the plunge and publish your work as a print book?
SJ: In some ways I regret the decision as there is no doubt that by sharing your work freely you reach far more readers than you do by charging money for it. I decided to ultimately publish the book as a result of the positive reaction to it from readers and from the site administrators who obviously see a lot of books. So I was confident it was of sufficient caliber to warrant publication. I already had one book in print so was under no illusions how hard it is to reach readers in such a saturated marketplace. I have a very limited appetite for self promotion however so I only have myself to blame.
MF: I totally understand your attitude toward self-promotion since I feel much the same way. Writing is the fun part, marketing, not so much, though I do enjoy helping others promote their work.
As a history aficionado, do you have a favorite historical figure? If so, why?
SJ: You would probably expect me to name a military figure from the ancient world but I would say my favourite historical figure is Charles Darwin. His contribution to science goes without saying but his journals reveal an adventurous and daring spirit. During the voyage of the Beagle Darwin undertook numerous arduous journeys into the interior. He braved hostile natives, inhospitable terrain and even ventured into a warzone in pursuit of scientific enquiry. I think a lot of people picture him perhaps getting off the ship from time to time and strolling around with his magnifying glass but he was a real man of action. He was also a genuinely decent human being with little time for the superiority or snobbishness that characterized Victorian men of his class and would happily break bread with anyone he encountered on his travels no matter how humble their station. He abhorred the slavery which he witnessed in South America and vowed never to return to any slave state.
MF: Darwin was truly one of history’s great figures. Few are familiar with, much less appreciate all he did or the man he was. And speaking of familiarity, most people are acquainted with the adage, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Which lesson do you think today’s leaders are failing to learn?
SJ: I think that the Middle East is the prime example of failure to learn from history. Time and again western governments have imposed clumsy solutions on the region which fail to take account of centuries of conflict and complex divisions understood by only a handful of experts. The poor handling of the Arab Spring and the rise of Isis are just the latest examples. Events of a thousand years ago or more still resonate in the region alongside more recent tensions and no doubt once the latest Iraqi crisis and Syrian civil war are finally brought to a close, another imperfect solution will be imposed by the west and Russia, adding another layer of complexity and more seething discontent.
MF: The Middle East has definitely been a problem area for millennia. It seems to me that much of the problem is that they are still stuck in the 7th Century culturally whereas the rest of the world has progressed. It’s impossible for us to understand what most modern westerners consider a barbaric mindset.
I find it interesting that you have a degree in Genetics and worked for the Forensic Science Service. Have you ever had your DNA traced to see if you’re genetically connected with any of the areas that draw your interest?
SJ: I have not. To my knowledge my family has been traced back to Elizabethan times living as farm labourers and domestic servants in the south of England but that’s only one branch. It would be an interesting thing to do one day. I’d like to find out if I have a bit of Viking in me!
MF: I’ve done some genealogy in the past and it’s definitely an advantage to be familiar with history when you’re trying to figure out where a family lived before they popped up somewhere, usually due to some migration due to events at the time, whether political or weather related.
While our cultural and genetic roots define our foundation, some historical figures such as General George S. Patton believed that he had been a warrior in a previous life. Have you ever had any experiences (e.g. deja-vu) that gave you the impression that you had actually lived during another specific time?
SJ: No. I don’t believe in previous lives but when I visit ancient places, where so much has gone before, I do get a sense of feeling the history of the place. Places like the Roman Forum, the Valley of the Kings, the Terracotta Army. There is something special in the air or in the stone that makes the hairs on your arms stand on end. That’s the closest I’ve got to something like that. I had a similar experience at Dachau too, for obviously different reasons.
MF: Those who have never visited a place that had a significant role in history can’t understand that. It’s definitely almost tangible, the echoes of past events that cling to an area.
Have you started work on your next book? Tell us about it and what inspired you to write it.
SJ: I am not writing a present as I decided to give up my job and become a teacher and sadly no longer have time for writing. That same love of telling stories and passing on knowledge is what made me want to go into teaching however and so I get the same satisfaction from planning and delivering lessons. I’m teaching science but I try to get a bit of history into my lessons wherever I can.
MF: That’s awesome! I’m sure you’ll make a fabulous teacher. So many students need some background to put what they’re learning into context, i.e., some additional information that has meaning and makes it relevant. When I was a child in school, the emphasis in history class comprised memorizing dates and places, which was mighty boring. I didn’t care about it at all until I got into genealogy.
Balancing a career of any sort with writing is always a challenge. Which part of the writing process is your favorite?
SJ: The research. The writing really is an outlet for the learning in my case. Whilst most probably see research as a means to end, for me the writing is the justification for the research. It gives it a purpose beyond learning for its own sake and a vehicle to share that learning. Whilst that vehicle was previously writing, now it is teaching.
You can read the rest of the interview here.