Thanks to writing and its many circles, I've met countless lovely individuals over the years. Recently, I made friends with the multi-talented Mark McLaughlin.
Not only has Mark authored the 'Throne of Darius' series - a unique take on the age of Alexander the Great - but he is also something of a master wargamer, having designed, prototyped and launched numerous games covering vital points throughout history.
I was particularly chuffed when he told me he had even tailored one gaming session to include elements of my depiction of The Battle of Kadesh (read more about my take and Mark's gaming sesh)!
So with our shared interest in books, battles and bundles of history, I reckoned it would be good to explore Mark's work a little further in a Q&A!
Here we go:
Q & A
Gordon: I find it most intriguing that in your 'Throne of Darius' series, you tell the story of Alexander the Great's conquests from the point of view of his opponents. Did you look at Alexander - one of history's giants, well covered as a protagonist by many novelists - and actively seek an alternative viewpoint from which to tell the story of this epic era, or did the viewpoint naturally strike you?
Mark: Just like everyone else in the West for the last 23 centuries, I was fed the Alexander legend. I was told his side - and only his side - of the story for as long as I can remember - right through military school and university... but after 60 years of that, I'd had enough of the propaganda. Alexander certainly was not 'great' to the peoples he fought, slaughtered, enslaved and conquered - and that included first and foremost the Greeks. The first battle he fought in was against Greeks (Chaeronea, where he led his father's cavalry to destroy the Theban Sacred Band) and the first city he sacked was Greek (Thebes - where he killed 6,000 Greeks, sold 30,000 Greeks into slavery and quite literally razed it to the ground - except for the House of Pindar, the poet, and two temples, lest he anger the gods).
That Greeks fought against first Philip and then Alexander is so often ignored. That Greek kings, generals and soldiers fought against Alexander at the Granicus, the Issos, and at Gaugemala is similarly glossed over.... or at best they are treated as 'mercenaries' or 'rebels' against him - which they were not. They fought against him as they saw him as a foreign tyrant (Macedonians were thought of as 'barbarians' by most Greeks). Even while Alexander was going east, at home Greeks were fighting his viceroy, Antipater - notably the "war of the mice" as Alexander so disdainfully called it, when King Agis of Sparta led a coalition against the Macedonians.
In 50 years as a journalist I covered a great deal of war, terror and politics in the Middle East and Central Asia - in many parts of which Alexander is seen as a destroyer of worlds and a foreign invader. He slaughtered tens of thousands, sacked dozens of cities, and destroyed a great empire - and culture. True, he built cities - all of them which he named after himself - but the empire he built broke apart immediately after his death. He doomed that part of the once united world to 300 years of internecine warfare.
So, as you can see, I began to see Alexander not as a hero or 'great,' but as a warmonger - and a savage one at that.
Gordon: You live over in the United States, so getting to the sites of Classical Greece can't be too easy, I guess? Do you manage to get over here to Europe and Asia Minor for research visits? I guess visits or not, all writers must become experts at armchair research too - how do you go about this side of things?
Mark: Unfortunately, I have never been able to visit Greece or the sites of Alexander's battles. On the other hand, I read a lot, and always have, and have friends who have traveled to some of those areas, and of course we can all go there virtually (thank you Sir Michael Wood for 'In the Footsteps of Alexander' book and video in particular). And, my editor is in Athens - a lovely, highly-educated Greek woman whose husband grew up outside of Thebes (and whose summer cottage is located on the site of the first battle in the first book!)
Gordon: You are something of a wargaming guru! Have you ever stumbled across a scenario while gaming, and realised it would work well in your writing projects? or vice versa - an idea while writing which influenced your approach in a subsequent gaming sesh?
Mark: My readings often spur me to design games - I have had 25 published over the last 40 years, and have four more in various stages of production. My reading, research, and gaming (board and miniatures - I have painted THOUSANDS of miniatures) often all come together. Alexander's campaigns, for example, can be fought in two of my games: Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea (where you can fight his western campaigns) and the upcoming Ancient Civilizations of the Middle East (where you can fight all of his campaigns - and those of his 'Successors.') And, of course, that research spurred me to finally write these novels (and, of course, to fight out the battles in board and computer games and on the tabletop with hundreds of painted miniatures)
Gordon: I think I know the Alexander era 'fairly' well, as in I can recall the high level timeline of his father's exploits, then his march of conquest, then the successor states. But in writing 'Throne of Darius', I bet you have found some really interesting details - a comedy moment in the normally-haughty Persian courtroom or some blood-curdling torture technique?
Mark: When it comes to torture, never underestimate the value of a European education (or a Persian one, for that matter). They always have been and still are masters at it. As for haughtiness, well, I had a Persian roommate at Georgetown one year - his father was one of the court physicians to the Shah of Iran. After a year with him, I understood why the Iranians revolted. Unfortunately, the ayatollahs are no better than the shahs. I tend to treat the Persians as far more civilized and enlightened than the Macedonians - who, even to the Greeks, were 'barbarians.' Still, hubris knows no borders, and their own pride only hastened their fall. (I put a lot of that into the section in the first book leading up to the battle of the Granicus).
Gordon: Finally, in fifteen words or less, tell anyone reading this interview who hasn't already jumped off to buy the 'Throne of Darius' books why they are amongst the best historical fiction romps out there?
Mark: This is not your grandfather's Alexander; this is history written from the other side, to whom Alexander was anything but 'great.'
Thank you, Mark! Some really eye-opening detail in there, and I just love the fact that you see writing, gaming and research as different facets of the same core thing - storytelling!
It's been great to talk to you. Keep up the brilliant work.
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
Empires of Bronze: The Shadow of Troy - a blistering new take on the legendary war from the dawn of history.