Suffolk: Henry on The Last Caesar and why ‘If I can grow up to be Peter Pan, that would be brilliant’
It’s not bad going to be snapped up in your 20s by a major publishing house, especially when you’re still at university. STEVEN RUSSELL meets the Suffolk author whose imagination was captured by a turbulent period of Roman history
YOU’RE a lucky man indeed if you’ve got a friend prepared to drive you 40 miles in a battered Ford Focus – and through snowy countryside at that – so you can keep your big dream alive. Henry Venmore-Rowland was that fortunate soul, full of gratitude for Flurry’s help.
Henry was then an undergraduate at Oxford and it was the last day of the Christmas term in 2010. The previous summer he’d finished polishing and perfecting what he hoped would be his debut novel and had sent out the first three chapters to prospective agents. Unfortunately, none bit hard on the bait.
A key birthday present that year was the Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook and he combed the pages for a second wave of agents to target. Under “A” was one close-ish by: The Ampersand Agency. Despite a fair covering of snow, Henry and his faithful driver set off with some manuscript pages. “I thought it made sense to hand-deliver this thing; to make some sort of connection,” he explains.
It paid off. The agency’s Peter Buckman read the three chapters within a few hours and liked what he saw. “I can only assume that, because the snow was so bad, the postman hadn’t been that morning and Peter had nothing else to do but sit and read this manuscript that some snotty student had delivered through his door,” smiles its author.
The agent, who used to be on the editorial board of Penguin Books, emailed within a few hours, asking to see the rest of the story. “Unfortunately” – what with it being the end of term – “I was in the car back to Suffolk . . .”
It was quickly sorted. Within a week Henry was a client and found himself in esteemed company. One of the agency’s authors, for instance, is Vikas Swarup, whose book Q&A features a young Indian waiter who wins �13 million on a TV quiz show. One prize-winning film version later and we know it better as Slumdog Millionaire. By the following May, Transworld editorial director Simon Taylor was announcing the acquisition of world English-language rights for the then 21-year-old’s first two historical fiction novels. His debut offering has just been published. The Last Caesar is set in a violent and turbulent period of Roman history – one known as The Year of the Four Emperors. Between the death of Nero in 68 AD and the rise of Vespasian late the following year came Galba, Otho and Vitellius – in tandem with a lot of assassination and suicide. With Nero’s departure came the real possibility that Rome might again become a republic – cue the inflammatory mixture of ambition and corruption, and the inevitable bloodshed.
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Within this historical setting Henry puts Aulus Caecina Severus, a hero of the campaign against Boudicca in our neck of the woods.
Embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow Caesar’s dynasty, he commits treason, raises a rebellion and faces torture – all, supposedly, for the good of Rome.
The soldier-cum-politician is something of a Machiavellian character who in the book – an amalgam of fact and fiction – looks back on this dark period and his role in pushing the Roman empire into a state of anarchy.
Writing, for Henry, combines two of his great passions: history and story. In fact, they’ve been intertwined since childhood.
“I’m a simple soul and love stories,” he says. “There are some great stories in history. My entire knowledge of the 19th Century comes from Flashman.” That’s Sir Harry Paget Flashman, the character drawn by author George MacDonald Fraser but based on the arch bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, now grown up and an illustrious (if cowardly) soldier in the British army.
“He [Fraser] goes about his work as a historian.” The books contained detailed notes about the period. “I would look at the back and see what he’d made up and what he hadn’t, and the little titbits. For me, too, it was the humour. It’s a great character. The bully expelled from Rugby and then becoming ‘a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward’ – and one of the greatest heroes of the empire.”
Overtly-historical tales Henry enjoyed included everything from Asterix and Obelix to the works of Bernard Cornwell and Robert Harris. Then there was Roald Dahl – Danny, the Champion of the World is a favourite – and The Hobbit. We mustn’t forget The Wind in the Willows. As well as reading the book, Henry remembers enjoying the richness of the writing and language when his mother bought him a recording of a TV series using stop-motion Plasticine models and voiced by actors such as David Jason, Sir Michael Hordern and Peter Sallis. It was glorious, he recalls, how most of the characters spoke the King’s English and how Badger would admonish Toad for saying “who” rather than “whom”.
Henry studied Latin at school for about nine years and began learning Greek from 13, too. He was adept at learning vocabulary, but says his brain couldn’t deal with all that grammar and the stripping-down and analysis of literature. It took the fun out of language. Give him a meaty tale any day. Three years of reading ancient and modern history at Oxford, then – packed with powerful stories of people doing things – was hugely appealing.
Funnily enough, for a long time history hadn’t been his strongest subject at school. It had been Latin. But when Classics took on that increasingly forensic air, the fun began to leak out of it. “I wasn’t that keen on English, either! I love reading things like Othello and The Merchant of Venice, but I felt the more a tutor tried to peel away the layers, the more confused and unappreciative I got.
“I don’t want to see the mechanics. It’s like cars: I’m very happy to drive a nice fast one – the E-Type soft-top or whatever – but if they take the engine apart it’s just a collection of lumps of metal. It doesn’t have any joy for me. Simple soul. I just wanted to be entertained, thank you very much!
“Wuthering Heights? God, no thank you. Othello? Ooh. Kenneth Branagh’s Iago – wow! One of the best villains I’ve ever seen. If ever I can write a villain half as good as Iago, I’ll be doing all right. Then again, Shakespeare’s a very high peak to aim for, and I’m not writing anything vaguely literary, with a capital L. It’s mantrash, essentially, what we write!” You really think so? “The genre is affectionately called ‘boys’ own historical fiction’, and my editor described himself as ‘the go-to man for stories about men with long swords’, which is pretty true!”
Henry insists he was rubbish at creative writing from prep school on. “I had almost no imagination. Historical fiction is very useful; it supplies the plot and characters! I just need to narrate or dramatise – much more fun.”
We’re talking in his inner sanctum. It’s a treehouse a stone’s throw from the family home near Yoxford – a rather nice treehouse, with a hammock on the storey above, a balcony overlooking a croquet lawn and an arched window with glorious views over gardens. Outside – on a rare sunny morning – happy birds play a tuneful symphony.
It was built by Henry’s father six or seven years ago and – since Henry “came home” six, seven or eight months ago – it’s become established as his workroom. More a night owl than an early bird, he’ll commonly come out here after lunch to fire up the computer, though his best hours for creative output are between 10pm and 2am.
Luckily, it’s out of internet signal range – reducing the chances of being thrown off course by random surfing of the web! – but he will have his BlackBerry by his elbow to Google the odd vital fact . . .and check the latest England cricket score.
So how, then, did he start writing?
Well, he was 17 or 18 and finishing the lower-sixth year. “As boys of that age do, I was spending far too long playing a certain football management game on the computer, and thought ‘Hang on . . . if I uninstall this, I’ll have quite a few hours in the week. Why not do something vaguely useful with my time? I’d always been reading the Bernard Cornwells and the Robert Harrises, and loved them, so I thought ‘Why not just have a go at doing some historical fiction?’”
He wrote about one of this country’s manic-depressive generals – a man few of us know too much about. Henry produced 10,000 words or so, but “I cottoned on that, aged 18, I wouldn’t be able to do the story justice”. Those words were put away. Writing was re-ignited in 2008, during the summer between leaving school and starting at university. For this attempt – which would become The Last Caesar – he looked to the Romans, which was more his comfort zone. Henry had heard of this “year of the four emperors”, thought there had to be a cracking tale there, and researched it.
By the time he left for St John’s College he had perhaps 30,000 words under his belt – about a third of the finished book.
Not a huge amount was added during term-time – “Oxford loves to over-work you in the first year, just to make the second seem more palatable”, he smiles – but did beaver away in the holidays.
The story was finished, essentially, by the end of the summer holidays of his second year.
Henry gave it to both his father and his brother to read. Both are dyslexic and would ask for scenes to be shorter if they felt them too lengthy. It was useful advice that helped heighten the pace here and there.
Edward also wanted the tale to begin with a battle scene, rather than a memoir approach, and proved persuasive. “So I had to make up a little bit of history for Aulus Caecina Severus and put him in Boudicca’s rebellion in Britain, to show what he once was. It’s not inconceivable he was there . . .”
So the author set his sights on agents, secured that lift through the snow to Ampersand, and the rest is . . . well, history.
While it was lovely to be snapped up – that was the dream, after all – Henry concedes it did all rather play havoc with his finals.
“It was an unfortunate time, because I was in the middle of writing my thesis. The degree suffered ever so slightly! I was going up to London a few times to meet editors who were interested. That was two or three weeks before my thesis was due in, and I didn’t score particularly well.
“I thought I’d done better than it turned out I’d done” – he graduated with a 2:2 – “but I have no complaints about my years there and really enjoyed myself.”
After Oxford, Henry spent a couple of months last summer as an intern in the office of North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham. He also rented a room in a cottage in the Cotswold for a month or so, so he could see friends.
The time post-university has also seen him produce a 104,000-word sequel to The Last Caesar. It’s been dispatched to his editor and, afforded a fair wind, should be published about this time next year.
That done, Henry’s now in a strange limbo – facing something of a dilemma, even. His heart is pushing him to give it a good crack as a full-time writer; his head suggests he owes a duty to those who have made sacrifices – such as his parents, who sent him to good boarding schools – to make the most of his education.
Thanks to the deal with Transworld, he could conceivably hire a cottage in Oxfordshire – supplementing his income with a bar job, perhaps – and devote his energies to writing. On the other hand, he feels an obligation to try for a “proper job”.
He has been looking about, “but in a not-too-enthusiastic way”. A marketing job at Jaguar Land Rover did catch his eye, but that would have taken him to the West Midlands.
He does, though, have an interview coming up for a three-day-a-week research job for a junior minister. “It sounds a strange thing to say at the age of 22, but having spent a fair amount of time with myself as company, I know fairly well what my strengths and weaknesses are. I like to think that writing stories is the thing I do best of all.”
A fan from childhood of the satirical sitcom Yes Minister, at 16 “I was sure I was going to be either Jim Hacker [the minister] or Sir Humphrey [the obstructive permanent secretary]! That world seemed very, very interesting. The civil service was an option.” Perhaps the Foreign Office . . . He’d studied Classics; and his parents had scrimped and saved so he could go to Cairo a couple of times, to learn some Arabic. That 2:2 might, he fears, block off some career avenues.
“I love writing so much and it is probably unrealistic and ambitious to hope I might be able to do it full-time straight from university; but I’m going to give it a damn-good go. It’s what I love.” Henry knows one thing: he’s not a big-city boy. He tried living in London last summer, while doing the Parliamentary internship. “Oxford is a city, but that didn’t really count – it’s so beautiful and green; open spaces and quiet – whereas I was living in the Putney Bridge direction, right underneath the Heathrow flightpath. It didn’t work for writing! Just wasn’t my scene.” If he did get the three-day job in the capital it would leave four days for writing, but . . . “I went up to London last week for a celebratory lunch, and being on the tube and coming back on the train was enough. I just don’t like London!”
In recent weeks he has enjoyed a creative break from historical fiction, penning a screenplay for a crime comedy set in Glasgow. It went to his agent and has been sent to some folk in TV to look at. Henry sees it more as a film, but wouldn’t protest if anyone wanted it for the small screen.
“If that happens, it will be glorious. I’m crossing fingers but not getting hopes up.”
There is unlikely to be a long series of Venmore-Rowland stories based in Roman times. The confessed possessor of “a butterfly mind”, he can’t see himself doing what someone like Bernard Cornwell has done: finding a couple of great characters and sticking with them through 15 or 20 titles. “If I start to get bored with my own characters, what on earth would readers think!”
The next book is likely to be a revival of that first bit of writing he did as a teenager – involving that notorious general from Britain’s past.
He’s still got 10,000 words saved on his computer – a handy foundation. “The writing at 18, I imagine, will not be that good, but there’s enough for me to tweak and polish and cut and slash and burn!” he laughs.
“It’s a full-on story that needs to be told.”
Whatever happens on the job and writing fronts, you can bet that dreaming-up stories will always play a major part in Henry’s life.
“If I can grow up to be Peter Pan, that would be brilliant.”
n The Last Caesar is published by Bantam Press at �12.99
• He was born in Bury St Edmunds in the autumn of 1989
• The family lived at Clopton, near Woodbridge, before moving to a country home near Yoxford
• Between the ages of seven and 13 he was at Old Buckenham Hall prep school, south-west of Stowmarket
• Then he went to Oundle School, between Northampton and Peterborough
• His father works as a consultant for the estate agent Savills
• His mother is assistant secretary to the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich
• Henry’s uncle, Suffolk-based Piers Venmore-Rowland, has also written books, including a couple of crime/thriller novels