Spartans at the Gate: Eight Questions for History Novelist Noble Smith Interview by Hunter Liguore

Sons of Zeus coverNoble Smith is an award-winning playwright who has worked as a video game writer, a documentary film producer and the media director of an international human rights foundation. His non-fiction book, The Wisdom of the Shire,” was called, “A definitive guide to Tolkien’s worldview,” by Wired Magazine, and has been translated into eight languages. His epic action-adventure novel, Sons of Zeus, was published by Thomas Dunne Books June 2013, and is the first in The Warrior Trilogy. The second book in the trilogy, Spartans at the Gate, was released in June 2014.

  1. Noble, how did you get started with writing? What was your early inspiration, a moment that you can point to as the starting point?

The first book that I started working on was an epic science fiction/fantasy novel that was a cross between Frank Herbert’s Dune and The Lord of the Rings. I was fourteen at the time, and it was quite an ambitious project for someone that age, but it was spectacularly derivative of those two books. But you know what? It got me into the habit of making a daily effort to write. At first I wrote in cursive, then printing, then I got an electric typewriter, and by the time I was in high school I had one of the first home computers. To me writing is physical labor just as much as a mental endeavor. The Medieval manuscript illuminators, hunched over their desks all day, used to call their efforts “plowing the page.” I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. You’re like a farmer standing behind an ox, holding tight to a plow, breaking furrows in the soil of your imagination. It’s a lot of effort, but cool things grow out of that labor.

  1. How did your upbringing/schooling/travel/mentors affect your writing path?

Travel had a huge impact on my path to becoming a writer. We went to the United Kingdom right before I started high school and I got to see all of the great museums in London and visit places like Oxford (where my favorite writer J.R.R. Tolkien lived for so many years). And every summer we would go to a town called Ashland, Oregon where the biggest Shakespeare Festival in the world is located. In one week we would see about a dozen plays, and by the time I went to college I had seen half of Shakespeare’s canon. I ended up graduating from theatre school in that town alongside actor Ty Burrell (the star of Modern Family).

  1. The first book in the Warrior Triology is Sons of Zeus, which tackles the ancient world of Greece, and follows a young Greek warrior, Nikias, who “dreams of glory in the Olympic games as he trains for the pankration—the no-holds-barred ultimate fighting of the era.” His training is cut short when the city is attacked, in a type of “Pearl Harbor” way, which sends Nikias and his neighbors to war. The book is quite an accomplishment in how it recreates the past in such a lively and innovative way, one that allows that contemporary readers can easily connect, with. How long did it take to write the book? What type of research did you do for the novel?

Sons of Zeus took me ten years to write. A lot of people wonder how a Tolkien-freak like me could have written this book. What’s interesting is that Tolkien inspired me to start reading the ancient Greeks. I read in one of his letters that his introduction to the classics was Homer. So I went from reading The Lord of the Rings to The Iliad and The Odyssey. In college we had these core classes. Mine was Great Books. In that class we read every extant play from Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. I fell in love with the Greeks after that. So about ten years ago I was working as a documentary film producer, and we started a project about 5th B.C. Athens—the “Golden” age of Greece. During my research I came across the story of the sneak-attack on the democratic independent city-state of Plataea: a tale that I had glossed over the first time that I read Thucydides. I couldn’t believe that this epic story of courage and survival had never been the subject of a novel. The character of a young Olympic fighter-in-training who must save his city, family and beloved from genocidal invaders just came to me in a vision.

  1. Who were the real characters from the historical sequences in the book and who came from your imagination?

There are two historical personages in my story. The first was a magistrate of the city-state of Plataea named Nauklydes who betrayed his own people and opened the doors of the citadel to an attack force of Thebans. (The Thebans were the arch-enemies of the Plataeans, and their city-state was less than eight miles away.) The second personage is the Theban who led the attack against Plataea—a man named Eurymakus. My main characters—the ones that sprang from my imagination—are an old warrior and former Olympic fighting champion named Menesarkus, and his grandson and heir Nikias. At the start of Sons of Zeus they are farmers living on the outskirts of Plataea. They are featured throughout the trilogy.

  1. Spartans at the GateYou’ve recently published the second book in the trilogy, Spartans at the Gates, coming out in 2014, and had the chance to visit Greece. How much hands-on research or travel was involved in crafting the story? Did you visit the historical sites where the story takes place?

When you write about a real place for a long time, and then you go to that actual spot, the experience is mind-altering. It’s like stepping into a dream. Imagine if Tolkien could have taken a stroll into Middle-earth? That was what it was like for me the first time I went to the actual site of the ruins of Plataea. You see things that you don’t read about in books: the flora and fauna, the smells, the color of the dirt. These are all really important for creating verisimilitude. That said, one of my favorite writers is Patrick O’Brian (author of the epic Aubrey/Maturin series); and I know that he didn’t sail around the world on a Napoleonic War-era fighting ship. But his series is one of the most realistic ever written. But that was because he was a first-rate researcher who spent countless hours poring over letters and documents in the Public Records Office.

  1. What is one of the trickiest part of writing a trilogy?

The hardest part is trying to make the deadlines set by my publisher. I have about a year in between books. That’s a lot of writing to get done while also doing other work. You can’t really make a living as an author unless you’ve got a smash hit. Plus I like to spend a lot of time with my kids. So it’s carving out that time to write. I don’t give myself the luxury of having writer’s block. Ever. I treat writing like driving a truck. Truck drivers never get to say, “I’ve got driving block today. I can’t make that delivery.”

  1. Do your ideas just “come” to you, or is it a matter of finding a nugget of research that launches further discovery? Example?

So many ideas just come to me as if the characters are speaking to me in voices. I know that sounds esoteric, but it’s true. I also have ideas in dreams or waking visions. But sometimes I’ll see something at a museum or at an archaeological site that will give me a great idea that I can play on. Some of the crazier things that people think I made up in Sons of Zeus actually came from research, especially about the Spartans and their strange lifestyle. My favorite saying is “God is in the details.” I don’t even know who said that, but it’s so true when you’re writing historical fiction. And it’s what makes people fall in love with Tolkien and Middle-earth.

You asked me earlier about travel and what kind of influence that had on me as an author. When I was a kid we went to Virginia (I grew up on the West Coast) to visit the family farm—a place that was a stone’s throw from the Manassas Battlefield. I was amazed that this war had come so close to the home of my ancestors. One of my farmer/soldier forefathers had fought in a skirmish right before the battle of Bull Run (as Manassas was called in the South) in familiar woods nearby, and then he’d stood in his regiment waiting to be called into the great battle. I suppose that image stuck in my head and later became the farmer/warriors who inhabit the world of Sons of Zeus and who must go to war—first against the Persian invaders, and then against their own kind—in battles that were waged virtually right outside their front door. So that’s a case where family history has filtered into my brain and manifested as characters in a historical fiction epic.

  1. Word to live by?

Play nice. And don’t squander your precious time.

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