Today, I’m featuring the amazing David Blixt! He’s the author of many historical novels, but the one we are showcasing today is his second book in the Colossus series, The Four Emperors. For blog purposes, I’m keeping the review shorter as I also have a fabulous interview with David that you won’t want to miss. Packed with information, but loads of fun too! David is one of the most interesting people that I know! That interview will follow the review and book information below.
David is a very well-researched author and his books are very well-written with developed characters and historical plots and intrigue you can really get lost in. He immerses himself into his projects, painstakingly perfecting every chapter, paragraph, and line so that readers are entertained and educated. Being a novelist, and creating perfect stories to please readers, seems to be David’s innermost calling, because he does it with such finesse.
I’ve read several other of David’s books, but I think the Colossus series really adds to the whole Roman history genre, taking place in a Rome under and post-Nero. Nero, known for his diplomacy and trade, but yet also his swift executions and extravagant and impulsively driven character, also persecuted Christians and is now assumed to have set the great fire to Rome. Too cowardly to perform the suicide he wanted, he made someone else kill him and then ensued the era of chaos known as the Four Emporers, which is the time that David’s second book takes place.
David’s character Titus Flavius Sabinus is caught in the emotional and political turmoil that is created as four people joust for the throne. David’s gives us an intricate and dimensional view of Sabinus, written with depth of character and feeling. We can feel the struggle that Sabinus must contend with in order for safety. As big statues are erected by tyrants who rule (kind of like they are building a public display of their egos), so must they topple and Sabinus is caught right in the middle of the drama that is civil war.
The writing of David Blixt is descriptive and beautifully authentic. He truly knows how to set the visual scene, enamoring and engaging readers in a hypnotic way. I dare you to NOT read David’s Colossus series, because it’s a must-do for any true fan of any type of historical literature that is well-versed and intelligent. Synergetic of today’s mass crumble, this book is a must read on several levels!
COLOSSUS: THE FOUR EMPERORS, Snyopsis~
Publication Date: April 7, 2013
Rome under Nero is a dangerous place. His cruel artistic whims border on madness, and any man who dares rise too high has his wings clipped, with fatal results.
For one family, Nero means either promotion or destruction. While his uncle Vespasian goes off to put down a rebellion in Judea, Titus Flavius Sabinus struggles to walk the perilous line between success and notoriety as he climbs Rome’s ladder. When Nero is impaled on his own artistry, the whole world is thrown into chaos and Sabinus must navigate shifting allegiances and murderous alliances as his family tries to survive the year of the Four Emperors.
The second novel in the Colossus series.
Interview with David Blixt~
Hi, David! So happy to finally have you here on the blog for an interview! I always enjoy your books and you’ve been by Hook of a Book before with an amazing guest post, but I think my readers are looking forward to me picking your brain. How has the Fall season in Michigan been treating you, much like mine in Ohio?
David: Hey, Erin. Thanks so much for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here. The Fall has been lovely so far. The summer Shakespeare season is down, with all four shows getting lovely reviews. The kids are in school, and while I’m shuttling madly back and forth between Chicago and Ann Arbor, I am grateful to finally be able to jump back into writing!
Erin: You’re life is always so busy and seems fun every minute. Let’s get started then! Let’s hop in an Aston Martin and go for a drive and see how many questions we can ask on the fast turns (for readers who don’t know, David is a huge James Bond fan!)
David: Entirely true. Though I prefer the Swing-era jazz to Bond’s softer 50s-style. So let’s turn on some Benny Goodman and get started.
Q: You are a very interesting and well-rounded individual. You are an actor, playwright, novelist and a jack of all creative trades. What makes you tick? For example, what makes life worth living for you (outside of your wife and little cute children, of course)?
A: (ducking head in an ‘aw shucks’ manner) You’re very kind. What makes me tick? Hm. Short answer – history, Shakespeare, Looney Tunes, and being able to hop from project to project. Part of what I enjoy about theatre is that it’s a very project-based profession. The same is true about writing. I like diving deeply and completely into a subject/role/idea and exploring it to its fullest. I like finding out new things and sharing them, in what I hope is an entertaining fashion. I once had a professor at U of M tell me it didn’t matter what I learned, so long as I learned to learn deeply. That has always resonated with me. Diving into the deep end of a thought or question or story and exploring it to its fullest – and then being able to move on to something entirely different. It’s my joy.
There’s a punny motto in my family – “Follow your Blixt.” Terrible, but true. At the end of the day, my bliss is writing, giving form to thought and discovering where it takes me. Writing is as much exploration as story-telling. I know the ultimate destination, but I really enjoy finding my way there.
(The other name-based joke is “Ignorance is Blixt”. I use that a lot).
Erin: Love it!
Q: In all your time acting and performing and directing in endeavors such as the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, how do you fit in the time to write with a busy family and all as well? What is your best used tactic to getting research and writing completed?
A: The research never ends. And the truth is, whenever I’m stuck in my writing, the research will save me. I’ll find some fact or quirk of history that leads me down a path I had no idea existed.
As for writing, I need to allow myself long stretches of time. I’m teaching less this semester, for which I’m very grateful, as I now have more time every day to write. I’m at my desk by 8:30 in the morning, and while I’ll read the news and do Facebook for awhile, I usually am into the writing within an hour. And I won’t really emerge until the kids come home, or until I have to be somewhere. If I have less than four hours, I can’t really build up a head of steam.
The only sadness in my life at present is that I have very little time these days to read for fun. Most of my reading is research, so I feel I’m missing out on books by authors I adore. Thank heaven for Audible, so I can at least listen to my fellow travelers in the car.
Q: Your love of Shakespeare is evident and I loved reading Her Majesty’s Will, featuring Will Shakespeare of course! But you’ve written several other sets of books, the Star-Cross’d series, which is set in Verona, and then the series we are on tour for now, Colossus, which is “a tale of Jews, Romans, and the Rise of Christianity.” Which has been your favorite to write and why?
A: The Verona books will forever be dear to my heart. The Master Of Verona was my first real novel (the prior attempts live in a drawer), and I discovered so much – about myself, about the craft, about history – that I’ll look on it fondly for the rest of my life. I hit a lot of highs, and that novel just poured out of me in the space of a year. The sequels have allowed me to continue both to grow and to play in a sandbox I adore.
Her Majesty’s Will was probably the book I had the most fun writing. It’s unlike anything else I’ve done, just a mirth-filled romp, and I was grinning the whole time I was at it.
All that said, the Colossus books are probably the most direct writing I’ve done. The story is very, very clear in my head, and the characters even moreso. As there are very few fictional characters, I can just allow the history to carry me on. Each series has its own tone and style, and for Colossus the writing is my most straightforward, which I hope means also the most accessible. And Rome resonates with me more than any other period of history – probably because there are so many parallels to our present day.
Q: For the Colossus series, what was and is the major inspiration for you in writing about this time period? What themes or historical lessons are you teaching?
A: The initial inspiration was physical – I was in the Saint Clement’s Basilica in Rome, exploring one of the city’s best-kept secrets – the excavation under the church. Rome is a city that his built itself up and up over the last 2500 years. At San Clemente they’ve dug down, allowing tourists to travel back in time, layer by layer, all the way down to a first century cobblestone Roman street. I’ve been back three more times. After the last, I determined to do something about that remarkable place. But what?
So I started researching Saint Clement, the fourth Pope. And, without spoiling my own ending, I found a story that inspired the whole series. From there, I started tracing the historical elements back to the Fall of Jerusalem. I wrote a book, and my agent said, “Great. Now you have to write the novel before it.” After I disposed of his body, I did just that. It was vast, so I split it into three parts – Stone & Steel, The Four Emperors, and Wail Of The Fallen (coming in 2014). After that comes The Hollow Triumph, and probably two more – we’ll see.
The themes have a lot to do with man’s relationship with the divine, but also with honour and family. Over the long haul, it will explore the idea of a “good” death.
Colossus: Book 1
Q: Do you feel that the Colossus books address issues of today by teaching through history? Why or why not?
A: I think a huge portion of our trouble today is failing to learn the lessons of history. Doomed to repeat it and all. But we don’t even know our own origins. We don’t know how deeply the conquering of Judea affected Rome, and how Rome in turn altered the nascent Hebrew sect of Christianity. It’s just like people making assertions about the American Founding Fathers without reading their writings. If we don’t know how our past shapes our beliefs, we cannot understand why we believe what we believe, and challenge those beliefs when they come in conflict with our experience.
Factoid – America was very much seen by some founders as a “New Rome.” In fact, Washington DC was originally called just that. They tried to rename the river the Tiber. The Capitol had a space for an eternal flame, just like the Vestals had. The Washington’s monument is an obelisk, just like the ones Rome stole from Egypt. In the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln is posed like a Roman consul. All of these are deliberate. But, being modeled on Ancient Rome, we are in danger of falling into Roman traps. The more we learn about what went wrong in Rome, the more we can resist the forces pulling us in the same direction. I hope.
Erin: I hope too!
Q: How did you do your research about this Roman era, around 60-70 AD, in order to write the Colossus novels? What is the most interesting thing you came across in your research, something that surprised, shocked, or amazed you?
A: There are any number of sources I could cite. Two books on the Year Of The Four Emperors alone, one by Kenneth Wellesley, the other by Gwyn Morgan. Books on Nero, on Josephus, Vespasian, Domitian. Plutarch, Suetonius, Livy. All of it is grist for the mill. Tons of reading. Then it all distills into the story that needs to be told.
The shock, to me, was Nero himself. I knew about some of his depravity, but it is simply beyond my understanding how he was able to last even as long as he did. No wonder the senators hated him – he threw parties where their wives were forced to submit to any man who came along. The rape-culture in the novel makes my skin crawl, but is if anything toned down from some of the reports.
And yet, if one writes about a historical villain, one should try to humanize him. Otherwise he’s a caricature of evil. Nero was awful. But he was granted ultimate power as a teenager. What does that do to a boy? A victim of incest, taught murder by his mother, it’s no wonder he ended up murdering her in turn. He was not interested in pain so much as shame. You look at his actions, he was out to shame everyone. A kind of revenge. So much of what happened was due to how he was raised, what he came to think was normal. There was some serious mental illness there, married to unquestioned power. The one part that is touching, or could be, was his desire to be a great artist. More and more, he felt the pull of theatre and music. He was a disaster for Rome – for anyone whose path he crossed, really – but he’s also pitiable. He desperately wanted to express himself. The horror is that he chose all the world as his palate, and used people for his paints.
Q: We are still linked in so many ways to our Roman trailblazers. What do you think were their worst faults? And then, their best efforts?
A: Starting with their best, their ideals are great. They took the Greek notion of democracy and crafted it into a workable frame, one we specifically use today. They were incredible engineers. They created the first standing courts, the first set of inalienable rights. The notion that all citizens were equal was at the heart of Roman life.
Their worst? A tendency to back themselves into political corners that resulted in military or unconstitutional solutions (crossing the Rubicon was Caesar’s acknowledgement that the law no longer functioned). They institutionalized racism and slavery. They started revering men above their fellows, despite their determination not to do so, which led to an accruing of power at the top. Worse, privatized arms makers and mercenary armies replaced the state-run ones, creating warfare as a for-profit industry. Once standing armies came into being, it created the need/temptation to use them, causing a state of constant warfare.
Oh sorry – were we talking about Rome?
Q: Why is studying the rise of Christianity so important to learning about history, even if someone might not be religious? How did it change or shape history?
A: Early Roman Christianity (separate from the Christianity that existed prior to Peter coming to Rome) borrowed so much from other religions. There are elements of Isis, Horus, and Osiris, as well as Mithraism. The birth stories of Moses and Romulus are blended into Christ’s. Rome was the Caput Mundi, the capital of the world, the place where all ideas met and merged. It was inevitable that Rome would change the nascent Christian cult. And when, a couple hundred years later, Christianity replaced the Roman pantheon, it was not a pure switch. The saints took on the roles of the old gods, who were each prayed to for individual needs.
So much of this is obvious, and yet unknown. We disdain other religions without understanding them. As religion is the biggest divider in all of history, the fact that we remain so ignorant even of our own is horrific, perpetuating the cycle of Christians hating other Christians, much less Muslims and Hindus and anyone else who prays to God by another name. How many people know about Martin Luther nailing his tract to the church door? How many understand what that was about? Or Saint Augustine renumbering the 10 Commandments so that coveting a neighbor’s wife got its own slot? Or that Jews number them differently than we do?
One of the biggest unknowns, and one that I’ll touch on at some point in the series, is Judas Iscariot. The trouble is, there is no word Iscariot. It doesn’t mean anything. But Sicariot – that’s a huge word. It means ‘the knifeman’. This was a group in Judea who assassinated prominent Romans and any Jew collaborating with the Romans. Their hope was to provoke a war. So if it was a simple transposition in an early text, Sicariot to Iscariot (two letters!), that changes our whole understanding of Judas. If he was a revolutionary who wanted outright war with Rome, betraying Jesus might have been his way of starting that war. But if he expected Jesus to fight back, he was disappointed. No wonder he killed himself – he had betrayed his teacher for nothing. The war wouldn’t come for another 30-odd years.
So history is shaped by religion, and religion is shaped by our own ignorance of it.
Q: You are such an amazing individual with so many interests in various historical time periods, as well as I mentioned previously, James Bond, and further, Spiderman and comics! What kinds of topics such as these does your brain flip between on a daily basis? How do you handle your many interests? *smile*
A: Comic books are a frequent habit. I have a Batman story I’d like to write someday. Doctor Strange, too. Old Time Radio is a nightly habit – I fall asleep listening to Gunsmoke or The Saint or The Shadow. Lately it’s The Adventures of Rocky Jordan and Dragnet. Shakespeare is a constant, thanks to my profession. Classic cartoons are another constant, in that I’m trying to raise my kids right.
But during the day, I flit between all my upcoming books. Plot points, twists, details, characters – there’s no telling what book I’ll be thinking about at any given moment. If it’s not the one I’m working on, I’ll jot the idea down and hopefully find it before I start on that project down the road.
Q: What are some of your favorite superhero or comic book story lines and why? There’s been resurgence in graphic novels, even those on historical subjects. Why might this be a good way to teach literature and history? (I enjoy the art myself!)
A: I’m a Spider-Man guy. But great writers bring great things to otherwise forgettable characters. I’m a Bendis fan – Ultimate Spider-Man, New Avengers, All-New X-Men. I’m a huge fan of Jim Starlin’s work (Dreadstar), and Howard Chaykin (American Flagg, The Shadow). John Byrne in the 80s was unstoppable, and his X stories with Chris Claremont are utterly brilliant. Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men was superb. Batman goes in spurts, but the recent Death Of The Family was fantastic.
None of this even touches things like Fables, Sandman, Y The Last Man, and more. I like good writing. Go figure.
Oddly, I haven’t read that much in the historical GN field. Want to throw some titles at me?
Erin: There are alot of them out there for school age children. I think it helps them read, either for reluctant readers or for readers on the higher end. The visual propel them and the writing keeps their attention. Therefore, history that might be dry or boring to them, now becomes memorable! I’ve seen all the classic literature done into them, as well as straight history. I’ll come back with a list.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors and mentors?
A: Historical fiction authors – Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, Colleen McCullough, Sharon Kay Penman, Patrick O’Brian, CW Gortner, Raphael Sabatini, Mary Renault, Umberto Eco.
Other authors – Dashiell Hammett, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman, Robert Asprin, Robert B Parker, Ian Fleming, Ian Mortimer, Stephen Greenblatt, Tom Clancy.
Q: What are some of your favorite movies and television shows? And why?
A: I’m pretty predictable – my favorite movie of all time is Casablanca. And I love the Errol Flynn trio of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Raiders Of The Lost Ark is unbeatable. The original Star Wars films. Die Hard. Master & Commander. The Incredibles.
In terms of turning people on to films that are unknown but shouldn’t be, I always start with Truly, Madly, Deeply. Just incredible performances and writing.
For TV, The West Wing is a touchstone. Deadwood. The Wire. Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, and also the new Sherlock (BBC). Doctor Who. Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Game Of Thrones. I always try to turn people on to Jekyll, as well as Slings & Arrows, which is as close as anyone will ever come to making a show about the life I lead.
Q: What are some the biggest social issues we are facing today and how can literature help in creating a better society?
A: Education. First, we need to stop demonizing teachers and realize that, were we in their jobs, we’d be curled up in the corner crying with the lights off. Then we need to teach deductive reasoning, not a litany of facts. Dates are useless compared to the ability to draw your own conclusion. We are not teaching that. As someone who is in a classroom a few hours every week, I can say that students are desperate for it. They want to know not what, but why.
We have un-linked Cause from Effect. “You mean if I do X, Y happens? Nonsense. Y happens because of gay marriage, or legalizing pot, or (currently) Obamacare.”
Much of what’s wrong in society stems from not knowing our own history. Oh, you think labor unions are bad? You like weekends, don’t you? Unions did that. 40-hour work weeks? Unions. We’re taxed too much? The highest tax tier in the 1950s was something like 80%. The Founding Fathers wanted a Christian nation? Read the Treaty of Tripoli. Why are we repeating the mistakes of the early 1930s? Because we don’t remember them!
I’m coming off as fairly liberal, and I suppose by today’s standards I am. But today’s liberal is a 1950s conservative. I look at what Eisenhower believed and I say, sign me up. Guy planned D-Day and interstate highways? Believed in small government and Social Security and unions? I like Ike. So, in the history of the 20th century, I’m pretty moderate. Only in the 21st century are my beliefs screamingly liberal.
But even saying that depends on remembering history. We forget our history. That’s what literature can do – remind us not of where we are, but how we got here.
Erin: I love that last quote, especially! But totally get what you are saying politically too, so true.
Q: You have quite a few books in Star-Cross’d series and Colossus series. Will there be more? Will there be more Will and Kit novels?
A: At the moment, I’m projecting eight novels in the Star-Cross’d series, and six for the Colossus. I’m sure Colossus will finish first – by this time next year, the two series will be tied. After the next Star-Cross’d novel (The Prince’s Doom) I’m taking a break from Verona to focus on other books and recharge those batteries.
I have an idea for another Will & Kit book, with the hapless spies facing down the Spanish Armada. It has the worst title in the history of literature: Will’s Will Will. We’ll see if I have the will to stick with it – but it makes me smile every time I say it, so it’s looking good.
Erin: I’d love another Will and Kit book! The first was so entertaining!
Q: Beyond those, do you have any other time periods of history to write about? What might be next for you past those you are already writing within your present series’ of books?
A: I have three books vying for dominance in my brain. One is a stand-alone Roman novel, set at the founding of the Republic. Another is an early 16th century novel dealing with Othello. And the third isn’t historical fiction at all, though it features many historical figures. It takes place in Hell. I’ve been wanting to write that one for a decade – even took a crack at it once, with middling results. Had the wrong protagonist. I’ve got a better story now. For the Othello book, I’ve got the frame and the characters and outline, but not the voice. So the Roman book may get done first. We’ll see.
Q: Have you thought of writing an espionage novel?
A: No. Apparently I should? (I do have an Elizabethan Noir novel that’s about 30% done. Close enough?)
Erin: YES! You have a passion for it and I think you could do a grand job, just work it into some of the historical intrigue and make a go of it! *smile*
Q: Your favorite part to play on the stage and why?
A: Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Petruchio in Taming Of The Shrew. And Macbeth. Used to be Mercutio, but I got too tied to it. And I’m far, far too old now.
Q: Where can readers purchase your novels?
A: Links to everything at www.davidblixt.com. Or you can visit my Amazon author page at: http://www.amazon.com/David-Blixt/e/B001IQZJME/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1
Q: Where can readers connect with you?
A: I have a blog, but I can be reached most every day at my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/David-Blixt-Author/22822113504
Erin: Thank you so much, David, for joining in this discussion with me today! It’s always a pleasure to speak with you! I wish you the best of luck with Colossus and all your pursuits, as always. Now, I’ve got to try to run a comb through my wind-blown hair, you really like to take those wild turns at the speed of light! Were we being chased by spies?
David: Those aren’t spies. Those are angry Oxfordians, trying to silence my refutation of all they hold dear.
Thanks for having me. This interview was exhausting, and I don’t think it was the driving. But it was a heap of fun. Though I’m surprised we didn’t get around to discussing the best Bond actor. Save that for next time. Cheers!
Author David Blixt, Biography~
Author and playwright David Blixt’s work is consistently described as “intricate,” “taut,” and “breathtaking.” A writer of Historical Fiction, his novels span the early Roman Empire (the COLOSSUS series, his play EVE OF IDES) to early Renaissance Italy (the STAR-CROSS’D series, including THE MASTER OF VERONA, VOICE OF THE FALCONER, and FORTUNE’S FOOL) up through the Elizabethan era (his delightful espionage comedy HER MAJESTY’S WILL, starring Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe as inept spies).
His novels combine a love of the theatre with a deep respect for the quirks and passions of history. As the Historical Novel Society said, “Be prepared to burn the midnight oil. It’s well worth it.”
Living in Chicago with his wife and two children, David describes himself as “actor, author, father, husband. In reverse order.”
For more about David and his novels, visit www.davidblixt.com.
Link to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/thefouremperorstour
Twitter Hashtag: #FourEmperorsTour