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Roman road to riches - Douglas Jackson interview

How did a historical novel land debut writer Douglas Jackson one of Scotland's biggest book deals? DAVID ROBINSON finds out

MOST AUTHORS CAN'T TELL YOU the precise moment they decided to write, but Douglas Jackson can. It was nine o'clock one November night five years ago, and he was driving north on the M9 to his Bridge of Allan home. He'd passed the woodchip factory in Cowie, and it was right there and then.

He was listening to a CD of Simon Schama's A History of Britain, with Timothy West reading from the first volume, sweeping epically from 30,000BC to the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Just past Cowie, West had got to the Roman conquest of Britain in 43AD. It was one sentence that did it, a sentence with these words: "The emperor Claudius rode in triumph through Camulodunum on the back of an elephant."

Although he didn't know it then, Jackson's life had already changed.

This week, he launches his debut novel, Caligula. It's part of a two-book deal he signed for what was reported as "a good six-figure deal" – which, for a first-time novelist, is such a rare occurrence that in a country like Scotland it only happens about once a year.

Yet before he heard that sentence about Claudius's triumphant arrival in the town we now know as Colchester, before he began to think about how that elephant got to Britain in the first place, before he started imagining the life of a Roman slave, Rufus, who looked after it, Jackson had never tried to write fiction in his life. That night, when he got home, he sat at his computer and started.

AT THIS POINT, IT'S ONLY RIGHT TO point out that Douglas Jackson is, as well as being, as I have discovered, a natural story-teller, also a colleague and friend. As assistant editor at The Scotsman, he is in charge of production, which means in effect that he has to have the whole newspaper – but especially the news pages – in his head, to know which stories are on which pages, to check the headlines, standfirsts, captions are up to scratch, that deadlines are met, edition changes set up, and that, overall, each day's paper looks the best it possibly can.

It's a huge, highly pressured, potentially draining job – so much so that I find it hard to imagine how, on finishing work for the day at about 8 o'clock, he could then have enough creative mental energy to write the story of Rufus, trainer of Caligula's (and Claudius's) elephant on the train journey home. Perhaps I shouldn't have been too surprised. In Ireland, John Banville began his own career as a novelist while simultaneously being production editor of the Irish Press; in Scotland, George Macdonald Fraser wrote his first Flashman novel while deputy editor of the Glasgow Herald.

Over the last couple of years, I followed the progress of his novel without actually reading any of it. To be honest, at first I was only slightly interested. Why should I be? Everybody these days (apart from me) seems to think they have a novel in them: if Doug did, who was to say it would ever clear even the first hurdles to publication? Even if it did that, who was to say it would ever sell in significant quantities? I know the odds against both eventualities better than most: every week I fish out of the mail sacks hundreds of novels for which neither I nor most other books editors will ever commission reviews. Every fact I know about publishing gives preposterous odds against the kind of deal Jackson signed with his publishers; every instinct I have about the novel-writing business pushes me towards cautioning against even modest expectations.

Yet, as the months passed, I began to realise I was wrong about Jackson's novel. I should indeed be interested in it, not just because he was a colleague, but because his book seemed to be clearing the hurdles quite effortlessly. There was another reason: at least at the start, he was clearing them in ways no writer had ever done before.

To tell that story, it's necessary to look back at the one Jackson started writing when he got home that November night five years ago.

When he began imagining the life of Rufus the elephant trainer, he did what most of us would have done: starting at the beginning with Rufus's childhood in Mauritania, telling the story of how he came to Rome in chains, how he got the job as keeper of the emperor's elephant, and how that in turn took him to Britain. Jackson finished that 140,000-word novel, The Emperor's Elephant, in a year. When he'd typed the last paragraph, he celebrated by opening a bottle of champagne. Soon he was writing another one.

He didn't, however, really know what to do with The Emperor's Elephant. He'd shown it to some friends, but that wasn't too much help: how objective could their criticism be? Then, a couple of years after he began writing, he made a key discovery. Surfing the web, he came across a site called youwriteon.com.

Why youwriteon.com matters is that it cuts through one of the biggest problems in publishing: that far too many people are writing far too many books for publishers with far too little time to read them. Tens of thousands of debut novels can languish on what publishers derogatorily term the "slush pile" for months – years even – without ever being read. Usually, unless they come with a recommendation from an agent, they never are.

Essentially, youwriteon.com is an electronic slush pile, full of stories by would-be writers. Unlike a real slush pile though, stories submitted to it actually get read. They don't just get read once, but potentially scores of times, by other wannabe writers. They, in turn, can only put their own stories on the site if they give an assessment – and a star-rating – to a story already there.

What this means in practice is that the best stories gradually rise to the top of the heap. And for the very best there's the reward that induced many writers to submit their stories to the English Arts Council-funded site in the first place: the chance of their work being critically assessed by an editor at a major London publishing house.

That's what happened to The Emperor's Elephant. And as Jackson told me about it, I became fascinated: this, I could see, was a publishing innovation that even many people in the industry hadn't latched on to. Because it's all done on the internet, and because restrained criticism seems to desert us in cyberspace, appraisals can be raw and often hurtful, but a good story can find itself propelled up the site's popularity chart by equally uncompromising raves.

Here, for the first time, Jackson found himself learning from other writers. So they thought his opening 10,000-word submission didn't live up the book's title, didn't get to the meat of the plot soon enough? Very well, he'd rewrite it and submit it again. The second time, it worked: he was rewarded with a trail of five-star reviews. The site's organisers put him in touch with Sarah O'Keefe, an editor with Orion, who read the whole novel.

O'Keefe liked it, but wanted still less of a linear structure and even more detailed plotting at the novel's core. It should not be just one book telling Rufus's life story, but at least two. For the first, he should concentrate on the Caligula years, showing how Rufus finds himself in a maze of conspiracies, unable to work out whom to trust.

If youwriteon.com had crystallised what the book should be about, O'Keefe's advice focused it further. Essentially, she was outlining a different book entirely . It had to remain a page-turner, but a more complex one: readers had not only to feel they were in Rome, but feel an edge of fear as Rufus found himself enmeshed in political intrigue against a psychopathic emperor, set to end in a grisly death.

By this stage, Jackson had acquired an agent, who set up an auction for the book – now called Caligula – with seven publishers. A pre-emptive bid by Simon Thorogood of Transworld won the book for them.

Publishing may be a gambler's industry, but it's not altogether insane. To understand why Thorogood bet so heavily on Jackson, you have to understand that Caligula is a rare beast: a book written with irresistible pace but also a slowly growing sense of unease. For the nearer Rufus gets to the psychopathic heart of imperial Rome, the more he has to guess whose side he should take. The wrong choice – or in Caligula's corrupt, compromised, paranoid court, even the slightest suspicion of the wrong choice – would prove fatal.

It's odd to think of it now, but it's this world, where death is mass entertainment and intrigue universal, that Jackson was conjuring up on his laptop as he took the 21.03 from Waverley to Bridge of Allan after work each night. As Falkirk Grahamston, Camelon, Larbert and Stirling came and went alongside the carriage window, Jackson's imagination would be taking him to altogether different places: to Rome's underground sewers, for example, or the blood-stained sand within the gladiatorial arena, or to the elephant's stable close to the Palatine palace.

Perhaps, he admits, it's because his mind was disengaged after yet another demanding, deadline-filled day, that he did some of his best writing on the train on the way back home. All that double-dealing he had to inject into the plot, all those outlandish questions he had to answer for himself (OK, so just how DO you train elephants to do new tricks?) sometimes seemed easier to handle rattling back on the hour-long commute home.

"The odd thing is," says Jackson, sitting next to the computer on which he started writing about Rufus five years ago, "that somehow all of this feels meant to be. There seem to have been signposts all along that said, 'Keep going. You're heading in the right direction.'

"Youwriteon.com, for example, I just stumbled on when I hadn't a clue about where to go next with the book. Then that took me to the next step, and if anyone knows anything about historical fiction, it's Sarah O'Keefe at Orion. I remember when she told me I needed to rework the book that I wasn't sure if I could do it, but I knew that if I could it would take me to a completely different level as a writer."

He'd always known that he could write; and he'd always had a love of history. "When I hear people say, 'Write what you know, I think no: write what you love. And for me, that means history."

He grew up in Jedburgh, leaving school at 15 to start working as a journalist in local newspapers in the Borders and Stirling before moving to the Daily Record when he was 35. But the Romans came into his life quite early on.

"I was on this Youth Opportunities scheme repairing a Roman Fort in the Cheviots which had been ploughed up by the Forestry Commission. We were on the camp – Pennymuir, right out near the Border – where, nearly 2,000 years before, Roman soldiers had done more or less the same thing as we were doing, digging ditches in the peaty soil.

"When you're out there on a summer's day, well, you can see a gap in the hills where Dere Street comes through, and it runs by the side of this camp, the first Roman marching camp in Scotland, built by the 28th Legion. It's like you could imagine the legion marching through those hills, and you'd get a wee shiver, because you felt part of that same history. You had a sense of the past all around you, and your closeness to it."

It's an odd business, this writing game. It can start with a stray thought on a motorway, and take you back to the past with an immediacy you have forgotten for years.

In the 21st century, that world can open up to you courtesy of the internet: you can download maps of ancient Rome and let your mind wander down them, with all the historical sources you want (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius) just a mouse-click away. And, if you're Douglas Jackson, you can put all that information together on the train after working to put this newspaper together too.

Like I say, he's a friend and colleague. But even if he wasn't, I'd still say this: for a first-time novelist, he can certainly write a page-turner.

&#149 Caligula, by Douglas Jackson, is published this week by Bantam Press, priced 12.99.

Douglas Jackson on …

Youwriteon.com: "They gave me the breakthrough and taught me how to take criticism. It's as if a switch has been flipped. I know that I'll write from now on."

Other novels about Rome: "I deliberately didn't read any when I was writing, nor did I watch Rome on TV because I didn't want to be influenced. I wanted it to be my Rome, my Caligula – and the Caligula inside my head wasn't mad. A psychopath, yes, but they can have a normal, perhaps even charismatic, side too. If you read between the lines in the sources, you can see that there is a human being there. I tried to find out what made him who he was. I think I achieved that."

Violence: "Some of the online critics had a right go at me because of an early, gory scene in which my gladiator, Cupido, slowly kills a cheetah in the arena. The truth is, I put myself in the arena and that is exactly what I saw. The arena is all about killing for entertainment – that's what gladiators did."

 
 
 

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