TAEM interview with Author Graham Clews

TAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine is excited to introduce to all our readers an historic novelist from Canada whose writing ability presents a new approach on historic fiction. Graham Clews originated from York, England and brings his own memories of that land brilliantly into his novels. Graham, tell us of your early childhood there and of your family’s move to Canada.

GC- I was very fortunate when my parents moved to Canada in 1956.  This was time when Canada was experiencing its postwar boom, and Britain was still struggling with an unstable economy (1956 also saw the Hungarian revolution, and the Suez crisis).  For my parents the move was one of economics, as management and labour unions slowly adjusted to a new balance of power— not always peacefully, and not always for the best.  For a tradesman—my father was a blacksmith turned auto body man—the opportunities were far greater in North America.

To a thirteen year old boy, however, emigrating to Canada was the greatest adventure of his life.  It was also a move that brought with it a complete contrast of cultures:  the fresh, wide-eyed sense of a young and rapidly growing country, Canada; and the more staid, history-filled memories of the ancient City of York.  And while considering the move to Canada as being one of the most fortuitous events of my life, being born and raised in York in the earlier part of it was yet another one.  Those thirteen years instilled more than just an appreciation of the rich history of the old city, they also fired the imagination with the drama of what had happened to the people who lived there over the past two thousand years.

Of course, at the time such fancy wasn’t truly appreciated, but it was all there in the back of mind.  My route to school, (where the core building was an old Victorian mansion), ran through the medieval city walls, past the city’s enormous  thirteenth century cathedral, and skirted at least two ancient graveyards with worn, stone slab markers and trees a few hundred years old.    Much of the downtown area is still little different than it was seven, eight hundred years ago (woe betide the contractor who digs his foundation and finds himself in the middle of a Viking village, for example—the project is on hold for at lest another two years).

At the time, we kids paid little attention to any of it—we just worried about whether or not our homework was done, which it invariably was not.  Nonetheless, for me the memories stuck, and age brought with it a new perspective, or perhaps appreciation, which was starkly brought home by the wide open spaces and newly built cities and towns of Western Canada.  It was great time to be alive in Canada, mind you, and a great time to grow up—the fifties!  There’s never been any better time or place in the entire world.  But old memories are great too…

TAEM- Writing was not your original forte in life, but rather the financial field had a calling for you. Tell us about your career in this.

GC-  I guess my official career began in 1961 when I decided to become a chartered accountant.  I articled under a five year program that was administered through Queens University.  Ten years later this option disappeared, following the same fossilized path of the old indenture system—which had a lot of similarities.  (46 candidates started, and only 9 of us finished on time in 1966).    It was good training, however, and once completed it was my wish to go out in industry and become part of a large company’s executive team.  I did this for about five years, which included a transfer to Montreal in 1968 as the accounting manager for Canadian Celanese’s chemical division (Chemcel Limited).   It was a heady environment for a 25 year old, but it wasn’t long before I missed The West.

During a business trip back to Edmonton I was offered the position of controller for a subsidiary of CAE Aircraft.  However, my return coincided with the bankruptcy of one of CAE’s largest customers, the Handley Page Aircraft Co.   It also coincided with a commute to one of the periphery towns outside Edmonton where my wife and I lived, which meant driving through some of the most open and glorious countryside in Canada on a daily basis.  Both experiences laid the foundation for a strong desire to move permanently to a rural area, even at the loss of a corporate career.  The bottom line:  I wanted to live on a farm!

January. 1972, saw a move to the small town of Westlock about fifty miles north of Edmonton.  At the time, it had a population of 2,500, but a large farming area surrounded it, and the oil industry was rapidly expanding further to the north.  This provided the setting for a rewarding career over the next 36 years, particularly in terms of friends and lifestyle.  I retired from fulltime practice in 2008, sold the farm in 2010, and now live on an acreage within walking distance of Westlock,  The small town now has a huge population of just under 5,500.  If we had to do all over again, both my wife and I (now married for 49 years, and with three children and four grandchildren), would both do it all over again.

TAEM- After many years of living in an urban setting you decided that a country life was more suitable for your family. Describe this change for you.

GS-The switch to a rural life proved to be tremendously satisfying.  It was a great place to raise our children, particularly during the years on the farm.  Oddly enough, the rural environment vastly broadens both one’s outlook and perspective, rather than narrows it—which is what most people seem to believe.

In a small town, you get to know all your politicians by their first names, from the MP to the town mayor, and it’s easy to get totally involved in almost anything you want.  And why not, you get to know everyone.  I think that rural people are far more politically aware than the urban. Not only that, on a personal level, through the daily events of a busy accounting practice, and through a broadening circle of friends and acquaintances, it’s truly not an exaggeration to say that by retirement I could likely have put a name to nearly a thousand people. (And if a person was still working when he died, most of them would show up for the funeral—and have a good time, too—not that it would make a jot of difference by then).

Westlock offered us busy, productive life with new experiences that included raising cattle, seeding the land, building houses, joining the RotaryClub, and doing all sorts of volunteer work over the years.  A lot of experience was gained over the years, and in a wide area of interests.  (At 45 years old I even joined the Canadian Army Reserve for a second stint—the first one began in grade twelve—and retired as a captain at age 55).   Oh yes, country life seems to keep a person active.

Everything that one does, however, gets stashed away in the back of the mind, and it remains there as an experience to be drawn upon later in life, particularly for a writer.  I was lucky in this, and the more people you meet, the greater is the stash.  This includes the foibles and the fun, the errors and the successes, the quirks and conundrums; and I’m sure that when they’re all boiled down to the basics, they’re little different today than they were a couple of thousand years ago.    This helped considerably when I finally sat down to write.

TAEM- You proceeded to return to public accounting and retired as the senior partner in your firm. With this new reawakening of your personal life did it give you the freedom to finally delve into your new passion of putting the pen to the paper ?

GC- Oddly enough, I did most of my writing to date before retirement.  My first novel was written around 1982, a tongue in cheek story about a reluctant war hero whose ego led him to become a paratrooper in the Canadian armed forces.  It tied for first place in the now defunct Alberta Search for a Novelist contest.  (Doubleday had it for a year and a half, then I got bounced by Donald Jack, whose Bandy series was written in a similar vein.  It never did get published, and though I still have the manuscript, it’s dreadfully dated).

Of my four published novels, the first three were written before I retired.  There’s an old expression: if you want something done, give it to a busy person to do.  I find it’s more difficult to write after being retired when one is not being pushed, than it was when working all the time and totally organized.   Certainly the freedom is now here to what I want and when I want, but with it comes perhaps or lack of drive; or maybe it’s simply a like of pressure to get things done by a certain time.  Perhaps this is because I never had to meet publishing deadline, or received an author’s advance that needs to be honoured.   Hmmm…

TAEM- You have achieved an astounding new slant on history in your ‘The Eboracvm’ trilogy. Please tell us about the name of this series of books and what it stood for.

GC-  Eboracum  was founded in exciting times.   The word itself was the name the  Roman gave the fortress at York, a huge structure that was initially built of wood and encompassed approximately 50 acres.   (The book cover uses the word Eboracvm, as the Romans made their ‘u’ in the shape of ‘v’, maybe because a ‘u’ was difficult to chisel—this has caused me nothing but confusion).

The name’s origin is subject of debate, but the most likely two choices have either a Roman or a Celtic origin.  The Roman source may have come from auxiliary troops moved in from Germany who discovered that the wild boar was plentiful Northern England, and named the place accordingly (the modern German for boar is ‘Eber’, and was likely little different back then).  On the other hand, a Celtic cognitive of the word ‘Ibhar’ may have been used, which means the yew tree.  As such, Eboracum may have been named either as the place of the wild boar, or the place of the yew trees.  As for the ‘acum’ at the end, this would likely have been added once the civilian settlement grew up around the fort.

The  ‘Eboracum Trilogy’ spans the first 35 years of the fortress’s existence until the time it was rebuilt in stone, around A.D. 206.  Each book cover title is headed up as Eboracvm, with a subtitle that relates to the status of the fortress’s construction.  Several more are planned, each taking the history of York forward until the Romans abandoned what had become a thriving centre around the year 410.  During this period the emperor Severus died at York while campaigning with his two infamous sons;  as did Constantius a hundred years later, who was there with his famous son Constantine.  Surely, with the correct (or incorrect) cast of characters, a story of two can be found there.

TAEM- The first book in the trilogy is ‘Eboracvm, The Village’. What does the story center around, and who are the main characters ?

GC-The Village book centers upon a minor Celtic chieftain (Cethen), his wife, his young children and their kin, who flee their home following a skirmish with a unit of the Ninth legion on the site chosen for the fortress.  The detachment is led by a Roman officer (Gaius Sabinius), who is sent to survey the site.  Cethen’s exile is as much the cause of his own people as the Romans, however, and when his path next crosses that of the Roman a circumstances have changed.  The story follows both men and their  families over a two year period as their fate grows inexorably entwined involving unusual, convincing twists of events that pragmatically paint neither side as being good or bad—just ordinary people of the time, caught up in events beyond their control.

The factual  background has been well researched, and several historic figures have been introduced in support roles, all having a significant influence on the story line: a well known figure, the Celtic client queen Cartimandua who is now middle aged and losing power; her ex husband Venutius who stubbornly continues to fight the Romans; her second husband Vellocatus, who was once Venutius’s shield bearer; and Petilius Cerialis, an often indecisive governor of the Britannia, and an historically unfortunate soldier—who had influence.

What makes The Village different from other historical novels is the treatment of the characters, and how their roles—well, unroll.  There are no heroes or villains, just people who we might know even today, all caught up in a more violent and harsher time.  They stumble through, as we all do, sometimes lucky, sometimes not, and often with the same dark humour that seems to haunt our own failings and successes.  (I love one tongue in cheek definition of a hero: someone who loses reason and perspective for about five minutes.)

Another major difference can be found within the female characters who fill the pages with roles that are as vital and influential as those played by the men.  They are not, however, the helpless, ‘in their place’ women of so many historic novels.  This was Celtic Britain.  Most of the women, in fact, have their ‘swords’ honed just as sharp as the men, if not sharper.  (I thought the novel would be a male read when writing it, but I was blind-sided by the reaction of the women who read the book.  If they have any interest in historic novels at all, they seemed to love it).

The final resolution of the conflict between the two main protagonists, which arrives more of an understanding than anything else, is played out following the completion of the fortress.  It occurs in a final battle that took place in what is today known as Stanwick.  This is not far south of where Hadrian’s wall was built fifty years later.  The ending is surrounded by the detritus of battle, but it is dramatic and poignant. The book ends as a complete novel in itself, but does leave a touch of hard, no-nonsense romance still dangling at the conclusion that a reader might take one way or another—though if we revert once more to being pragmatic, the answer is obvious.

TAEM- The second book is titled ‘Eboracvm, The Fortress’. How does this relate to the original story, and how has the story proceeded from that point ?

GC-  The Fortress moves on another five years to when Agricola was governor (for an almost unprecedented double term).   He conducted a lengthy campaign based out of Eboracum against the Celts and the Picts, one that took him as far north as the Moray Firth in what is now Scotland.   By then, Cethen and the Gaius’s children are in their early twenties, and their parents are in the early stages of middle age.   Both Cethen and the Roman have achieved a degree of success among their own people, and without giving the plot away, the women have progressed as well.

The focus on the various characters shifts slightly, however, as the new generation take on roles equal in plot importance to that of their parents.  The story line follows the Roman’s son Marcus as he matures under the yolk of those who become his Celtic captors, while Cethen’s son Rhun finds himself reluctantly serving as a Roman auxiliary soldier.  The two families’ paths are now firmly entwined, as the story of each plays out against the background of Agricola’s extended campaign.

Again, the characters are strong but down to earth (warts and all just as we all are today—men and women both), as they sometimes fumble through their problems rather than address them.  In telling the story, I’ve often drawn on my own experiences in both business and the reserve army:  things don’t always go the way you expect; you often find yourself in a pickle of your own making (which was not funny at the time); and if matters do get resolved, they often do so with more luck than judgment.

The book concludes with Agricola’s final epic battle in the Grampian Mountains of Scotland, which he won—though even today, some Scots claim it was more of draw.  It was enough, however, to have a significant impact on both families and their relationship with each other which forever changed their future.  And while again the book is a novel in itself, it sets the stage for the final episode of the trilogy.

TAEM- The final part in the books history is ‘Eboracvm, Carved in Stone’. Describe this part in the lives of the characters in your story and what you have felt that the books have achieved.

GC-Carved in Stone takes place twenty years later, at a time when the fortress was being permanently rebuilt in the limestone of Northern England (some of the remains have been excavated and are open to the modern public).   The story is set against a significant native uprising that quite literally set the north aflame, an event partly encouraged by Trajan drawing troops from Britain to support wars elsewhere in the empire.  The book takes the original, surviving characters into old age, and introduces a third generation who, like the second generation in The Fortress, play a significant role in the story.

Written in the same vein as the first two volumes (with emphasis on the often dark humour of circumstance, and the practical but non-heroic stance of the average individual) the book describes the final resolution of the conflict between Cethen and the Roman.  This takes place in a manner that is sad rather than violent, as is can be old age and the passing of time.  In the meantime, the women continue to play a key and important role to the very end, even though those of that first generation that did survive are now in their mid sixties—which was ancient for the time.

TAEM- We understand that historical fiction is not your only endeavor and that you have written another book titled ‘Jessica Jones and The Gates of Penseron’. Please describe this book and the style that it was written in.

GC-  Jessica Jones and Gates of Penseron is young adult/teen fantasy, that introduces a new and unique approach to time travel.  The lead protagonist, Jessica Jones, is a little person who is twelve years old.  The character is modeled on my granddaughter Jessica, who is also a little person.  She is now sixteen, but was about ten or eleven when the book was published.

The book is written in the third person, and tells how Jessica, along with her younger brother Jake, is lured into a living, timeless world that exists beneath the surface of the earth.  Her unwanted task is to solve the disappearance of a two thousand year old apprentice druid called Veleda—who could have once passed for her twin, which is why Jessica was chosen.  Just as important, however, is the problem of Penseron itself, which has been subject to the tremor of quakes which threaten to destroy the community.  These disruptions seem to have started at the same as Veleda’s disappearance.

Traveling the shiny blue tunnels of Penseron, which themselves are alive, Jessica meets an eclectic cast of characters from the past, most of them willing to help her on her way.  In doing so, they guide her through the thousands of exits (or gates) that line the endless, crystal-like tunnels:  exits that were made long ago and remain forever, each one accessing a year in time that repeats itself like an endless, real life video tape that rewinds on an annual basis at the summer solstice.  Those who pass through each gate must be very careful, however, for they face the same dangers as the people of the year upon which it opens—and more so, because they must return before the year closes.

After a wild search through a half dozen adventures in time such as ancient Rome, medieval England, and even Captain Cook’s Australia, Jessica and Jake discover that Penseron has been broached, and by people who have taken Veleda and are intent on robbing the past of its riches (King John’s lost treasure, for example).  In doing so, they have threatened the very stability of this new and strange world.

The crisis is resolved when Jake almost dies following a last, successful encounter just before in Tripoli, where Jessica learns the true meaning of the self sacrifice as she and her new found friends make a desperate effort to save him.   Of course, it all turns out well in the end.

TAEM- Where can our readers find your works ?

GC-That’s easy.  All the titles will come up when simply Googled (even by just using the name Eboracvm);  or  they can be found on the net on any of the traditional vendors that range from Barnes and Nobel to Amazon.   The books are also available in e-book form.  And, if a person want to take the time, they might also visit my web site and order the books direct:  www.graham-clews.com.   Four or five excerpts from each book can be found on this site.

TAEM- Graham, I want to thank you for your time with this interview with The Arts and Entertainment Magazine and I know that our readership will enjoy seeing your work. I’d like to wish you much luck in all that you do, and hope that you will inform us of any new work that you produce in the future.

        TAEM