An epic struggle then king of the bestseller.
It was with trepidation that Conn Iggulden (born in Kent of Irish and Welsh ancestry) went to see the Oscar-winning film Gladiator.
For seven years he had been an English teacher whose efforts to become a published author failed to get him out of the classroom.
He'd been writing obsessively since the age of 13 when he also experienced his first publisher's knock-back. In retrospect he can say his first short story was "a bit Mork and Mindy" although at the time he thought it "fantastically original" and it did win a school prize.
Undaunted, he kept pestering publishers. In his attic at home lie the manuscripts nobody wanted - and which may yet come to life, given his subsequent success. He had even tried using aliases - Morris Minor and Oliver Brian Kenobi - to sneak past publishers who might have groaned on seeing his all-too-distinctive name again.
But this time, as he sat down to watch Russell Crowe scythe his way through two hours' worth of Roman epic, he was really on to something. He was halfway through The Gates of Rome, the first part of a blood and thunder series called Emperor, fictionalising the life of Julius Caesar.
"I was terrified when I went to see Gladiator because I thought it would be the story of Julius Caesar and that would have been disastrous," recalled Conn in Newcastle, where he was signing copies of The Death Of Kings, part two of his Emperor saga. "So I didn't enjoy it at all the first time but the second time I realised it was a good film."
The 32-year-old now ex-teacher recalls the genesis of Emperor. Supervising a history class, he was flicking through a text book when his eye fell on a passage describing how Augustus, first Emperor of Rome, hurled the heads of Caesar's assassins at the foot of his statue.
It was the spark. He picked up a book called Caesar, by Christopher Meier, detailing the minutiae of Roman life. He researched avidly, he went to Rome and paced out the distances between ancient landmarks, and he trawled the internet.
He realised there was more to Caesar than Shakespeare saw fit to include in his play. In fact, he doesn't believe there has been anyone quite like him since.
Certainly, he can think of no modern equivalent, although a modern Caesar would make his presence felt, he thinks.
"I don't believe people like him can ever be held back by the shackles of any culture. Julius Caesar's name was taken to mean `King' for 2000 years and it also gave us `Kaizer' and `Czar', yet the surname just means `cutter'. He was a man who came from nowhere."
An avid reader of historical fiction, Conn found rich pickings in Caesar's life story. Book two begins with a young Julius earning his laurels in a bloody assault on a Greek fort - before getting captured by pirates and held to ransom.
Conn describes combat well, recording the thud of arrow and slice of bladed `gladius' into flesh. It's tough stuff but eminently plausible. Conn's favourite author was that master of the maritime yarn, Patrick O'Brian, and he has striven for the same ring of authenticity.
With the "skeleton" of history on which to hang his fiction, the teacher wrote with renewed vigour. Looking back, he says he did everything differently this time. He rattled off 400 pages, photocopied them 20 times and sent a manuscript to an agent instead of a publisher. This time he got a letter back instead of a rejection slip. "I said to my wife, `This could be it'."
The agent hooked five publishers who all wanted to meet him. Four subsequently joined in a bidding war and HarperCollins won the day. Conn signed a pounds 306,000, four-book deal.
"This was the stuff I'd been fantasising about since I was 13 but I don't kid myself I'll be doing this for the rest of my life. I was just hoping I could get a couple of years off teaching to write a couple of books. I'll have to see how things go."
Con is charmingly modest. But if he didn't know his own worth before, he must do now. This father of two pre-school children, whose first book lingered at number two in the bestseller list, is not going to be allowed to stop writing.
His series is fast and bracing and already there is talk of a film. The Times reviewer wrote: "If you liked Gladiator, you'll love Emperor." The remark, published on the cover of the new book, shows how Russell Crowe turned out to be friend not foe.
Con says his wife fancies Jude Law for the part of Caesar. He just wishes he had more than four books to describe the exploits of one of the most extraordinary human beings ever born.
* Emperor: The Death Of Kings by Conn Iggulden (HarperCollins, pounds 10); Emperor: The Gates Of Rome (HarperCollins, pounds 6.99)
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|Publication:||The Journal (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Feb 3, 2004|
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