I had the great pleasure of reviewing “The Flame Before Us” by Richard Abbott for the Historical Novel Society.
It is a competently written and fascinating novel set in 1200 BC in what is now Syria, Gaza, Israel and Egypt. The Sea People, a group whose origin is subject to speculation, invade and bring down several cities in the Mediterranean.
Having traveled in the area extensively and having studied Ancient Greek at school, I found the book incredibly interesting. Abbott’s background as scholar in the field made the position he takes on the matter compelling and believable. The descriptions, characters and stories are as engaging as his extensive author’s notes, which include invaluable historical background information, maps and an index of the many characters.
The book ended up on my reviewing pile by accident but I’m very pleased that it did. Wide in scope and rich in detail and plot, this is an accomplished illustration of said era in the region: complex, informative, enjoyable and skilfully put together.
I had to invite Richard for an interview and am glad he kindly agreed. Welcome to my blog. Please tell us a little about yourself as writer and as person.
I suppose I have to start with being a reader, something which has been a passion of mine since very early life. My parental home had lots of books in it, and further afield in the town of Godalming where I grew up, the public library was another great source of material. So I devoured historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and a whole lot of non-fiction books on different topics. Fast forward a lot of years, family life, academic study, work, and all, and the desire not only to read but also to write came to the surface. Which is where I am now. Perhaps like many of us, I write partly to challenge myself and explore my own diverse thoughts and feelings, and partly for others who seem to enjoy and appreciate the results.
Tell us about your writing history. When was the first time you decided to write and when was the first time you did?
Well, the very first attempt was as a child after reading a book by Andre Norton, Star Rangers: I wanted to write a sequel to her excellent novel. It was all long-hand, pen on paper, and I don’t think I got more than a couple of pages done. But there was a key moment when I thought of creating something new for myself rather than just absorbing from someone else. Then as a postgraduate I had an idea for a time travel book. That got a bit further, but ran out of steam as I realised I had no real idea where the story was going and how to achieve narrative closure. Then it all stayed under wraps for many years until the experience of studying ancient world literature reawakened a desire to be creative for myself.
Tell us about the concept behind your books. How did you get the idea?
The books basically deal with the lives of the people in a fairly unimportant hill country village, in the area we now call Israel and Palestine. I’m personally more interested in everyday lives than those of kings and generals, and I think this shows in the preoccupations which emerge in my writing. As the Late Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, the Canaanite hill country faced all manner of different pressures and absorbed different peoples. A way of life which had persisted for many centuries gradually crumbled, and the pattern of life for both men and women changed radically. So the intriguing question for me is, how were these huge changes reflected in everyday experience?
What in particular fascinates you about the era(s) you write about?
My fascination was originally with the literature and especially the poetry of the Late Bronze age near east. I completed a PhD thesis in which I aimed to show that there were cross-cultural borrowings between nations and ethnic groups, in particular between New Kingdom Egypt and the Levant. The Late Bronze Age was a time of great cultural intermingling in religious and artistic matters, so it is really no surprise to see this in the written word as well. The ways in which literate people expressed themselves – the formal structures and conventions they used – are different from modern ones, but via the Hebrew Bible they have shaped part of European thought. For various reasons I didn’t want to carry on an academic career, so once the thesis was done I turned to exploring the age in fiction.
Are you like any of the characters (and how so)?
I don’t think I am very like any of my central characters, except in the very general sense that they tend to be skilled workers – neither elite nor labourer. I tend to write about the IT workers of their age! But I do see facets of myself in some of the sidekick characters who are loosely attached to the main ones. I think I see myself as a loyal follower more than a charismatic leader or innovator. So to find me in the books, you’d have to look away from the centre. And you’d probably want to look at both male and female secondary characters as these will capture different parts of me
What is your life like outside of writing?
Well, for a day job I work as an IT specialist, testing that computer programs written by other teams really do the job they were intended to do. It’s a stimulating job with all kinds of different aspects, both technical and human. London is a lively place to live, but I am drawn more to the quieter benefits – the museums, the parks, films and so on. I particularly like walking outside the capital, in one of our national parks or along one of the long distance national trails. Earlier this year I completed the Ridgeway, part of a very ancient track which originally ran from the North Sea to the Channel: not only a journey through some great countryside but also a sense of walking along the same paths that remote ancestors would have done.
Who would you like to invite for dinner?
I’d actually like to invite people whose names we don’t know! That might be difficult… but it’s all a part of my deep fascination with the lives of people who history does not record. To be literate in the ancient world was a rare thing, but few signed their work. We know the names of hardly any of the scribes and officials who laboured to pass knowledge down to us. So I’d like to invite to dinner the scribe who painted the walls of the tomb of Nebamun just outside Luxor. He doesn’t know it, of course, but he was part of the inspiration behind my second book, Scenes from a Life. And it would be fascinating to have a real Canaanite hill country priest at the table, and see just how far off my portrayal of Damariel was! Plus their wives and families, of course: I’d want to make sure they knew they were all welcome.
Who are your favourite authors?
I have loved Ursula LeGuin’s writing ever since I first discovered EarthSea back in university days. But in general I have favourite books rather than favourite authors. And it also depends on mood – there are days when the thing that suits me best is wild and slightly mindless space opera as a means of getting away from the present. I couldn’t in any way say that it makes for great literature, but there are days when it fits the bill perfectly!
What book are you currently reading and in what format (e-book/paperback/hardcover)?
Actually I’m reading three books at the moment, swapping between them according to mood and to let parts of each sink in to me before moving on. Fittingly, there’s three different genres as well. There’s historical fiction – The Long Shadow, by Loretta Proctor, set in First World War Greece. Then fantasy – The Dead Gods, by Robert Bayliss, a follow-on book set in a lively and fascinating world. Then there’s a piece of ancient literature from India (in translation) – The Recognition of Shakuntala, by Kalidasa, a great classic work describing the eternal themes of love lost and found. The first two are ebooks, the last a small hardcover I found somewhere. I must admit to preferring ebooks for convenience (unpopular in some circles as that opinion is).
Tell us about your other books?
Within historical fiction there are three books – In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us. They are set in the same area, about 10 or 20 years apart from each other, and are quite loosely linked, mainly through individual characters. I would like to write one more in this series, to complete a quartet covering the life of Damariel, the village priest who is central to In a Milk and Honeyed Land. They move in progressively larger circles. The first takes place entirely within a few days’ journey of the hill country village where Damariel grew up. The second begins far upstream along the River Nile, following the inner and outer journeys of a scribe in Egypt and ending up in Canaan. The third begins to the north, in what we now call Syria where the city of Ugarit is sacked by invaders: it follows the separate tracks of invaders, refugees and defenders of the land until they all come together.
To date my science fiction writing has just a single book, Far from the Spaceports. This introduces the main characters and their job, which is basically to investigate interplanetary fraud. There will for sure be more of these to come.
What are you working on now?
An interesting question! I’m actually working in two completely different writing areas at the moment. The historical fiction will certainly continue, and I have an outline plan for the next book to involve a sea journey in quest of the sources of tin needed for bronze manufacture. Nothing much committed to writing yet for that, but the plans are taking shape. But alongside that I am pursuing another of my enthusiasms, by writing science fiction in a fairly near future setting. It’s not only a different genre, but gives me the chance to write in a very different style. I imagine that both streams will carry on in parallel.
Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200BC. The second area is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships.
His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt.
His first book, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan. It follows the life, loves, and struggles of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath.
A follow-up novel entitled Scenes from a Life begins in Egypt. It follows the journey of a scribe as he travels to discover his origins. down the Nile from Luxor and finally out into Canaan.
A third book, The Flame Before Us, is set in the middle of calamity. New settlers are arriving from the north, sacking cities and disrupting the established ways of life as they come. This story follows several different groups each trying to adjust to the new situation.
Author readings from both In a Milk and Honeyed Land and Scenes from a Life are available online as YouTube videos.
The short story The Man in the Cistern is set in the same location but around ten years later.
The short story The Lady of the Lions is set in the same location but around one hundred and fifty years earlier.
Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian is the ebook version of his PhD thesis which, for those who want the technical details, supplies academic underpinning for some of the ideas and plot themes followed up in fiction.
Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance. He also develops mobile/tablet apps with a focus on the ancient world, a subject for which he has great enthusiasm.
When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.