Author Interview: Philip Matyszak

Philip Matyszak is the author of over 20 books, mostly non-fiction. He’s been interested in the ancient world since his parents purchased him a set of little plastic hoplites at some point in the late 1960s. Since then his interest has shifted from the Greek to the Roman world, though recently it has been shifting back again. Over the past forty years or so he has been reading, wargaming, researching, teaching and writing about antiquity to the extent that he sometimes feels a bit uncomfortable in the 21st Century.

I first stumbled onto your work while looking for novels about ancient Rome, and read The Gold of Tolosa and The Servant of Aphrodite. I immediately wanted to know more about you as a writer and found one quote about how you don’t read historical fiction. Is that true? If so, can you explain why not? Most authors of historical fiction, myself included, spend their careers reading in their genre.

Well, I am primarily a writer of historical fact. That is, of my twenty or so books, only two (so far) have been fiction. Over many years of pretty much living there, I have picked up a substantial body of knowledge about the ancient world, mainly from people who were there at the time. The problem with historical fiction is that writers are not constrained to be accurate. (I refer you to the screenplay of ‘300’ as an example). Once in a bookshop I glanced at a ‘Saga of Ancient Rome’ where the hero stole some oranges and escaped through the forum into a tannery. All on page 3 or thereabouts. Even though oranges did not arrive in Europe for another millennium, and tanneries were in the Transtiberim district, far from the forum. Not all errors are so obvious, and I just can’t afford to absorb details that just are not true. Otherwise I end up doubting everything I know (which is probably not a bad thing, but it makes writing historical fact much harder) or spouting factoids that someone invented.

Is The ‘Gold of Tolosa’ and its sequel, ‘The Servant of Aphrodite’, rooted in fact? You’ve got sort of a hilarious line about it being newly translated but, at the same time, it left me wondering. It doesn’t say novel anywhere on the cover! How much is true, how much is fiction? Where’d you get the idea?

Heh, well, I challenge you to prove that the contents are not as advertised! In other words, everything in the novels is as accurate as modern research can make it. The events happened, when they happened, with the protagonists there as specified in the historical record. What I have done is inserted my own characters who could have been there, acting in ways consistent with the actual historical events. In both books there are in fact large chunks of prose ‘borrowed’ from contemporary Latin writers and inserted into the text with little more than translation to keep the writing style consistent. Book one of the Panderius Papyri was found at Herculaneum, book two was found wrapped around a mummy. Book three (yes, there will be a book three) was found as a palimpsest in a Ukrainian monastery. As long as I keep writing the novels, I’ll keep looking for interesting ways for them to be found.

You’re a prolific nonfiction author. Is it difficult to shift from fiction to nonfiction? What challenges has it presented?

The challenge I set myself – to write a book which an academic expert of the late Roman Republic may know is fiction, but in which there is not a single ‘fact’ which can be disproven. If my hero travels somewhere, that road existed. If he eats something, that food was on a contemporary menu. So basically I was writing a non-fiction history of real events as they happened, and inserting my fictional characters into the narrative. In a way this made some parts easier, because the ‘plot’ already exists. The time and place of (for example) battles and political struggles is not for me to decide – I have to work with what is there.

It seems like most historical books grow out of an area of research. Seneca. Nero. The Revolutionary War, etc. You’ve got some really cool concept books like Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day–which should probably be in every school library ever, and yes I got the library where I teach to order a few. How do you come up with your ideas for books? Do you just research in general then find an organizing idea? Walk us through your process.

A lot of my books are created in the process of researching something else. When I’m putting a project together I order a stack of books from which I’ll need material. Sometimes I simply can’t find a book on a topic I need. When that happens, I make a note, and if the topic is important enough, I write the missing book. The ‘concept’ books come from simply hanging around with people and discussing ancient history. For example, Rome on 5 Denarii a Day came because a fellow author noted that many people who purchase his travel books have no intention of visiting the place. So I thought, ‘So then you can write travel books about places you can’t visit?’ Ancient Rome for example. On the other hand 24 Hours in Ancient Rome started life as a planned TV show.

With all the expertise you have, a lifetime it seems, what do you still find most fascinating about the ancient world? What questions are still unresolved? 

Antiquity is my alternative reality. If your escapism is, for example Middle Earth or Star Trek, you are a geek. If your escape from reality is the ancient world, you are a a scholar. I love trying to put myself into the sandals of someone from 2000 years ago, and trying to see the world from their viewpoint. It’s impossible, of course, which is why it’s so fascinating to keep trying. The lovely thing is that everything is still unresolved. So much of what we thought we knew about the ancient world has proven to be wrong, and the rest is up for debate. Ancient history is not about learning facts, it’s about debating viewpoints.

Can you tell us a little about your current or recent projects? What should our readers be on the lookout for?

At the moment I need to focus! I’m in discussions with two editors on various book projects, and I want to get my next Panderius novel written this year – readers have been patient with me too long already. Since the start of 2018 I’ve written The Rise of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, The Atlas of Lost and Forgotten Ancient Peoples and 24 Hours in Ancient Athens. I’m currently working on ‘The fall of the Hellenistic kingdoms’. Once that’s done, I’ll have to stop for breath and see if my wife, cats and friends remember who I am.

Where can people go to find out more about you and your work?

You can find all my books, in all the various languages they have been translated into on, where I also keep a monthly blog of various thoughts on ancient history and comments about life in the mountains of western Canada.

On my Facebook page (look for Philip Matyszak) I comment about my various discoveries (for example that Omega is ‘big O’ in Greek – obvious, but it had never occurred to me) or the archaeological discovery that temples were sometimes delivered from the quarry in kit form for assembly on site. There are also occasional pictures of kayaking or snowshoe expeditions depending on the season. FB is where I have conversations with fellow ancient history enthusiasts.

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