ArtView January 2016 - Page 15

story with poetic writing and complex characterisation. Sutcliff suffered from Stills disease and was wheelchair-bound for most of life, so her own experience of pain and chronic disability may well have lent realism to her character’s suffering: ‘The pain, which had been first white and then red, was still there, no longer filling the whole universe, but reaching all up and down his right leg: a dull, grinding throb with little sparks of sharper pain…’ However, the perception with which she follows her characters’ extremely active, sometimes violent lives is a testament to the original virtual reality: a powerful imagination fed on books and stories. This was the book that more than any other, led me to the realisation of, in the words of historian G.M. Trevelyan, ‘the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions.’ I didn’t express it so eloquently at thirteen. I simply knew that this was how I wanted to write – to fully inhabit a character’s life from a different time and place than my own – and that I would start by writing my own version of the story of the lost golden eagle. I’m not sure if the story was ever finished, but it led to another realisation: the importance of historically accurate detail to flesh out the world and characters that the author is creating. On the first page of The Eagle of the Ninth, we’re taken straight to this unknown world: ‘traders with bronze weapons and raw yellow amber in their ponies’ packs, country folk driving shaggy cattle or lean pigs from village to village; sometimes a band of tawny-haired tribesmen…' The setting started me on a lifelong passion for research. (It would be many more years before I learned that good historical fiction depends on selecting the relevant details from the mass of fascinating facts. The novelist’s job is to evoke the world of that particular story, not to show off their own esoteric knowledge – I’m sure that Sutcliff could have given us many more details about the travellers on this road, but she chose only what was needed to paint the picture.) My father was an exchange officer with the US Air Force in Colorado at the time, so my longsuffering mother used to drive me to the library at the nearby Air Force Academy, so that I could research Roman military history. I still have the notes, although I haven’t used them. It now seems to me that there are enough men writing about battles and armies, and I am more inclined to explore a story through female eyes (although that doesn’t necessarily rule out the need to know about wars!) Now, after twenty-seven years of publication, I am writing the sort of book that the thirteen yearold me thought I might grow up to write. Dragonfly Song, to be released in July 2016, is set in on a Aegean island in 1450 BC – a very different setting and roughly fifteen hundred years earlier than The Eagle of the Ninth. My mute outcast girl has very little in common with the stalwart Marcus – except, perhaps, resilience and courage through adversity: traits that remind us all of our common humanity, no matter where and when we live. For that I will always be indebted to Rosemary Sutcliff.