By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 10, 2011
Hailing from the hills of rural North Alabama, Scott Oden’s fascination with far-off places began when his oldest brother introduced him to the staggering and savage vistas of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb. Though Oden started writing his own tales at the age of fourteen, it would be many years before anything would come of it. In the meantime, he had a brief and tempestuous fling with academia before retiring to the private sector, where he worked the usual roster of odd jobs—from delivering pizza to stacking paper in the bindery of a printing company to clerking at a video store. Nowadays, Oden writes full-time from his family home near Somerville. The Lion of Cairo is his third novel.
Scott, you and I are both writers of historical fiction but you seem to be drawn, particularly, to doomed figures, fading empires and lost causes. I can relate to that, but I’d love to hear your thinking on the subject. You’ve written about Egypt’s 26th dynasty in Men of Bronze, the life of Memnon of Rhodes (a fascinating character) in Memnon and now you’ve tackled the declining years of the Fatimid Caliphate in The Lion of Cairo. What is it about these time periods that captures your imagination?
The people, mostly. That’s what the study of history is to me: discovering people no different than you or I, who were born, played, learned lessons, fell in and out of love, gave birth, laughed, cried, worked, slept, dreamed, lived, and died. I look for moments of what Robert E. Howard called “blood and thunder”: moments when peace and good order have broken down . . . moments that inspire ordinary men to undertake the extraordinary. When things are at their most grim, when the veneer of civilization is stripped away and we have no recourse save to fight or die, here one finds the very essence of blood and thunder—and it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the essence of a good story.
You often mention the influence Robert E. Howard had over you, first as a reader then as a young writer. I love him too. Can you tell our readers who he was, and what it is about his work that moves you so much?
Robert E. Howard, or REH as his fans call him, came out of rural Texas during the Depression, to become a premier writer of pulp adventure, poetry, weird horror, historical, and sports tales. Though his professional career spanned a little over a decade (from 1925 till his untimely death in 1936), he wrote by conservative estimate some three million words of material—a good bit of it is more readable today than what sits on bookstore shelves. Without a doubt, REH’s most famous creation is a barbarian adventurer who flourished in the time before recorded history, Conan of Cimmeria. If you’re only familiar with Conan through movies or comics, you’re missing out on a spectacularly well-drawn figure of Byronic proportions. At his best, he is part brooding anti-hero, part laughing rogue, and part cunning predator.
REH’s style of writing paired economy with passion. He was a visual writer. He could set a scene with as few words as Hemingway, but his passion lent it a savage and visceral life. Nor was his prose without a sense of beauty—though much of it was the primal beauty of the wild. I can read a passage from REH (and I prefer either his historical tales or those of Conan) and feel the doom of mankind pressing in upon me, but rather than be depressed by this, Howard’s writing imparts a sense of glory not unlike what is found among the Viking sagas: death is inescapable; it’s how we die that measures us for immortality. This is a sentiment I’ve tried long and hard to infuse into my own writing, with varying degrees of success.
Is that what inspires you to create characters who are doomed or who face impossible odds?
While I can give a measure of the credit for that to REH, a great deal of it is also a reflection of my own world-view. Like my characters, I am a staunch pessimist but I don’t allow myself to get depressed about it. Like them, I take no comfort from religion nor do I pin my hopes for immortality on an afterlife. Fate has allotted us a measure of time on this Earth, and in that time we must strive to make our mark, to have our voices heard, our names remembered. Some do this through public service, others through the acquisition of temporal wealth or power, still others through the auspices of the Arts—for what is the desire to write and be published if not a bid for immortality? Of course, some people—most people—will live and die without generating even the smallest ripple in history. Don’t get me wrong . . . none of us will make it out of here alive, but I want what my characters want: to leave something of myself behind, some hint that I was upon this Earth. But what I attempt with the pen, my characters attempt with the sword.
As for impossible odds, is that not required for the hero in us all to shine forth?
Speaking of impossible odds, let’s get down to the subject of artistic Resistance. Can you describe your creative process? How do you get ideas and what do you do with them once you’ve got them? Do you work from an outline or are you a “seat of your pants” style of writer?
More often than not, I find my ideas in the pages of whatever I happen to be reading at the time. A passage from The Histories of Herodotus (III.4) gave me the idea for Men of Bronze; Harold Lamb’s Alexander of Macedon sparked my curiosity for Memnon of Rhodes. The Lion of Cairo came about from a conversation I had with my friend, and now my editor, Pete Wolverton, who wondered how cool the Assassins might be if paired with a 30’s pulp sensibility in the style of REH. I found inspiration for the forthcoming Serpent of Hellas (Medallion Press, 2012) in the pages of Barry Strauss’ excellent The Battle of Salamis.
Once I have an idea, I write down the principal themes and characters and then let it simmer. I putter around, gathering research materials I expect I might need. Then, when I feel it has percolated enough, I sit down and write an outline. With Men of Bronze, this outline occupied a dozen note cards. With The Lion of Cairo, it was essentially a rough draft clocking in at 37 single-spaced pages, replete with action and snippets of dialogue. The outlines for Memnon and Serpent of Hellas were somewhere in the middle.
Composition follows. I try to write 1000–1500 words a day, time permitting (I also have a full-time job as primary caretaker for my aging parents). The way I compose is, readers tell me, fairly odd. I’ve written about it to a greater degree here. I’m also a firm believer in seeding my workspace with totems, little fetishes that help channel creative energy (if you believe that sort of thing). Some are pictures clipped from books or magazines; some are postcards or gewgaws picked up by tourists. For Men of Bronze, it was a little stone skull (representing mortality), a picture of an Eye of Horus amulet, and a Corinthian helmet. For Memnon, a vial of sand from a beach on Rhodes, a postcard of Santorini at twilight, a replica coin of Alexander, and a copy of an Egyptian wall fragment depicting Alexander as pharaoh. With The Lion of Cairo, I added an Afghan salawar (not a replica, but the real thing), a watercolor postcard showing a desert oasis, and a David Roberts print (‘Boulak’). These things give me something tangible to focus on, a link to the worlds I write about.
I do that too. I’ve got superstitious talismans all over the place. Which brings me to the big question: how do you overcome Resistance (procrastination, self-doubt, etc.)? Does it manifest itself in a particular way to you, and are there any specific techniques you employ to encourage, inspire, or otherwise fortify yourself against it?
Resistance is the howling terror in the night; the Grendel-creature who becomes enraged by the sense of creative progress, steals into my subconscious, and tries to slaughter my self-confidence. His favorite tactic is to whisper in my ear that this novel is the one that will prove to the world I am nothing but a no-talent hack. It tells me my characters are ludicrous, my scenes are pointless, and my dialogue is riddled with cliché. Resistance tells me to quit and take up a new career, something more fitting to my lack of creative acumen. And some days, to my everlasting shame, I listen to Resistance; I spiral off into a funk and accomplish nothing, sometimes for days on end.
But then, invariably, with my finger hovering over the ‘Delete’ key, I receive a swift kick in the subconscious from the opposite of Resistance—from that inner voice for which I have no name. It is cold, hard, and tells me in no uncertain terms that I must get back to work and ignore the creatures clawing at my mind. Perhaps it is Determination or perhaps it is my guardian Muse. Whatever its source, the force and clarity of its presence silences the inner critic and allows me to resume the thread of my story.
Assad, the protagonist in The Lion of Cairo, is a hard fellow to root for, what with him being a fanatical member of the order of Assassins. How did you manage to make a cold-blooded killer at least marginally sympathetic, if not likeable?
I wouldn’t call Assad likeable, and you’re right: he is only marginally sympathetic. Though I don’t particularly care for him myself—I wouldn’t invite him over for a drink or anything—I do respect Assad. He is a type of Assassin that did not historically exist: a mastermind, as adept at planning as he is at execution, who did not engage in suicide missions. There’s a quote on page 151 that sums up Assad’s nature quite well: “Imagine a lion—cold and predatory, a man killer possessed of speed and strength. Now imagine that lion acquiring a man’s intellect, a saint’s patience, and a conqueror’s drive.” His fanaticism is less ardent than some, but he makes up for it through sheer determination: given a task, someone to kill or a message to deliver, he will see it done or die in the attempt. And if it should come to blows . . . well, he is a good man to have at your side. Perhaps it speaks volumes about me, but I don’t consider Assad’s propensity for violence or his casual willingness to take a human life to be character flaws; rather, they are indicators of the times in which he lives.
Ultimately, I think the trick to making a man like Assad even remotely sympathetic to modern readers is to present him with a foe even less palatable than he is. Assad might be a killer, but Ibn Sharr is a killer who also defiles the dead. That renders him irredeemably vile in my opinion.
Speaking of Ibn Sharr, your ill-famed necromancer: with The Lion of Cairo you’ve added the existence of sorcery to the framework of the historical novel. Was mixing history and fantasy a difficult balance to achieve? Did one threaten to overwhelm the other? And how do you think readers of historical fiction will react to the addition of magic?
Hopefully, readers won’t bat an eye at the presence of sorcery alongside the historical. Fantasy has always sat cheek-by-jowl with history, both in literature and in practice. Our ancestors believed magic to be a valid—if somewhat sinister—force of nature, a gift from the gods. Their songs and tales brimmed over with sorcerers and witches and monsters and all manner of things that could turn a stout man’s heart to ice. But, there was also sympathetic magic in the form of things: rings, swords, helmets shields, sandals . . . the list goes on. Bringing sorcery to 12th century Egypt came rather easily, as the former already existed in the minds of most people of that era, and the latter has always been a land steeped in the supernatural. They just seemed to arrive at a natural balance.
It was proportion, rather, that worried me. How much mummery was too much? For aesthetic reasons I tried to keep the sorcerous elements of the story as discrete as possible. During composition my personal edict was nothing flashy, and when in doubt I studied over and again the Biblical episode of the Witch of Endor (I Samuel 28:7) or Herodotus’ description of the Oracle at Delphi. I wanted that same niggling sense of ambiguity, the question of is it real or not, to overtake the reader regardless of what the characters might believe.
Scott, thanks for sharing so much of your process here. I’m sure it helped a lot of people. The Lion of Cairo hit the streets on December 7th; where can readers find you, both online and in person?
Though I’m not very fond of self-promo (I blame my parents’ admonitions that talking about ones self equals boasting), I nevertheless maintain a decent web presence, with a blog, a website, and two Facebook pages: Scott Oden, Author and Scott Oden.
I have a few readings/signings planned for the North Alabama area—check the blog for the most current details.
Today through Friday, you can sign up to win one of fifteen copies of The Lion of Cairo here.
Read an excerpt for The Lion of Cairo here.