Author Spotlight: Brook Allen
This month’s author spotlight is award-winning historical fiction author Brook Allen, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Historical Novel Society Conference in 2019. Brook had just launched the first book in her epic Antonius Trilogy, Son of Rome. I got back from the conference and ordered it, anxious to read about ancient Rome and the illustrious Marc Antony. Let me tell you, I was hooked! Confession: I don't normally gravitate to stories of ancient Rome, but the world of Marc Antony came alive in her novel and I eagerly awaited the second in the series!
Brook's trilogy is now complete. The third in the series, Soldier of Fate, launched fall of last year. Now, Brook is writing a new book. It won’t be ancient Rome this time, but something much more recent and closer to home.
In this chat, Brook talks about why she wrote about one of ancient Rome’s most well-known (yet in some ways elusive) characters, where in the world her on-site research took her, and her next book . . .
Regarding The Antonius Trilogy:
What do you most want potential readers to know about this series?
I want people to realize that this isn’t the typical “Antony/Cleopatra” tale. This is the story of the end of Rome’s Republic written through Antony’s point of view. I think that is a distinct difference. Yes. Cleopatra is in the book, but this is NOT her story. It’s his, and I think I’m the first writer to focus on that from the time his father dies and he’s a young boy until the end of his life. Believe me when I say—his story is NOT dull! Antony (Antonius, in Latin) lived a very full life in his 53 some odd years.
Why did you decide to write about Marc Antony?
I knew I wanted to write on Rome’s late Republican Period. There were so many phenomenal people alive during that time, but I knew I’d need a different slant. Cleopatra had been done so many times, and Colleen McCullough certainly had the best series focusing on Caesar’s career. I considered Cicero, but here came Robert Harris with such a stellar answer to his life, that I kept coming back to Antony. Once I read—then RE-read—Margaret George’s Memoirs of Cleopatra, I simply couldn’t get Antony out of my head. He was controversial, so he’d be a challenge. But then, why do we all write? Because the mountain is there! So I climbed it.
Was it difficult getting into the head of a male character?
Not particularly. It took some getting used to and adapting a different mindset. What WAS difficult was setting aside my 21st century values and mores to explore the mind of an ancient Roman. They thought differently than we do, for sure. Theirs was a martial society and it was cool and normal to sit and watch gladiatorial combat and to own slaves. Also, I had to develop the mind of a cavalryman and field commander, which I actually enjoyed! I am a former equestrienne, so writing the scenes when he was a cavalry officer came quite naturally for me. I had to do some research for the commanding part, though. Authors and classicists like Adrian Goldsworthy made it come a lot easier, with books on Roman warfare and legionaries. Men like Antony had a totally different set of values, all based on political gain, honor (if they had any!), and military/political influence. In ancient Rome, there was a lot of pressure on a young man of noble blood. It was like, SUCCEED OR DIE TRYING—for real.
What was the hardest scene to write?
That’s a hard one! I spent a huge amount of effort and time creating a plausible plot for my first book, Son of Rome. So little is known concerning Antony’s childhood and early youth. The late first century biographer Plutarch gives us some clues, but that’s about all we have. So I focused on weaving known historical scenarios into the story that takes place in Rome, since we do know that Antony spent his formative years there. As far as one difficult scene? Whew! Possibly several scenes in Son of Rome during the Catiline Conspiracy. When it was all said and done, I did a lot to stretch the drama in those scenes. Antony’s first taste of true love was written into those scenes, too. So that was a very powerful part of my debut novel. I knew it had to be good, so I must have rewritten that particular section a zillion times!
What was the most fun scene to write?
As I mentioned, I discovered that in my mind, I’m a damn good field commander! I thoroughly enjoyed writing battle scenes and skirmishes. And once I hit the second book in my trilogy—Second in Command—there were some really HUGE battles into which I could really sink my teeth. However, I think I had the best time ever with the Battle of Actium—the naval battle at the end of Soldier of Fate. It’s such a climactic part of Antony’s life. I wrote the entire sequence of scenes and the action parts all in one day. I remember sitting down with my husband and reading it to him. Come edit-time, I hardly changed a THING. It seriously just flowed. Times like that in the life of an author are incredible. It was proof positive that I was born to write this story.
What kind of on-site research did you do and where did it take you?
Six trips to Italy, two to Greece, one excursion to Ephesus in Turkey, and one dazzling visit to Egypt. Some of my guides became dear friends and I still communicate with five of them! Once, Silvia (my guide in Rome) helped to get me into several sites on the Palatine Hill that were closed to visitors. In Greece, I happened to visit during their big financial crisis back in the summer of 2015. So one of my guides there helped me access a site that was closed. She bought a bottle of wine for the security guard at the gate and he let us in! Then we spent the rest of the day visiting archaeologists excavating parts of a city founded by Octavian Augustus. I got to see stuff and ask questions of people uncovering artifacts who were bringing to light history for my story’s period that dated back two-thousand years. It was fantastic.
What’s next for you?
I want to continue focusing on craft. For the future, I want to raise the bar of my overall ability as an author to convey character and plot. Those are two areas that I seek to improve upon.
How old were you when you started writing?
I remember sitting at my mom’s old typewriter when I was about eleven and starting a “book” about a horse—a wild horse in Nebraska. Uh . . . never finished that one!
Did you know from a young age that you wanted to write books?
Yeah, as a result of wanting to write, I took keyboarding in high school. I’m a pianist, so I picked up on it super fast and it helped me with my writing. Usually, I’ve always been thankful for my dad’s good advice. However, he dissuaded me from pursuing journalism, because I almost did. So, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed out by not writing for twenty years or more. I’m sure glad I started when I did. Better late than never!
What does literary success look like to you?
Earning credibility as a writer is what it’s about, I think. There are different ways of achieving that. Reviews, book awards, gaining some notoriety from interviews… But what’s most important is how you treat other people trying to achieve their literary success, too. So many people have helped me. I want to pay it forward.
What kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Certainly, part of this depends on WHAT my research consists of. For ancient Rome, I had to learn an entirely different culture from what we know today. My next project will have cultural differences that I’ll find challenging, but I don’t think it’ll be as time-consuming (or as expensive!) as researching Antony’s story was. Sometimes I will begin writing and research as I go along. But I will be focusing on the historical period between 1803-1810, or thereabouts, so I want to be an expert on western Virginia during that short time-frame. I’ll add that being an “expert” also entails learning the history that people who lived in 1805 would have known—primarily that of the Revolutionary War. Truly, every author asks herself/himself, “Do I know enough to write this history?” It’s always daunting, no matter the period. One must dive in!
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
I try to be as truthful as possible. In instances where I must alter something due to length, plot, relevance, or to eliminate confusion, then I mention that detail in my author’s notes. When dealing with the past, none of us can be perfect in depictions or characterizations. Some parts of history have better records than others. Marc Antony’s history was recorded by his enemies, so I had to sort through that stuff and sift out what I considered might be fact or fiction, trumped up by men who defeated him. And he’s still a very polarizing figure to this day. I imagine there will be people out there that won’t like my next book, as I’ll be portraying slave-owners. However, this is HISTORY! If we don’t like someone or something about it, we can at least learn lessons from it.
What is the most important part of the artistic process?
Because I write historical fiction, I believe in world-building as being a “character” unto itself. The way I depicted Rome or Egypt, for example—describing the smells of the Forum Romanum or feasts in the glittering court of Cleopatra VII—became just as integral as getting to know my characters. Two years ago, I beta-read a book that will be debuting this coming spring. One of the characters had to spend a night in a sordid back-alley in 18th century England. I encouraged the author to spend some time imagining herself in that alley, because she didn’t mention anything about the smell! Whew! I’ll bet it stunk to the high heavens! Taking a reader to our imaginary world, wherever it is, creates the basis for excellent historical fiction. An astute author makes the reader smell it, hear it, taste it, FEEL it, and see it!
What are you working on now?
Something close to home! Because of COVID-19, I’ve made life a lot easier by starting a project here in my own county of Botetourt, Virginia. I’ve just started researching and plotting a story about early 19th century Virginia—right here where I live. It’ll encompass famous names like William Clark and Thomas Jefferson, but for the first time, I’ll have a female protagonist. I’m really excited about it!
More about Antonius: Soldier of Fate:
At last: the Antonius Trilogy’s riveting conclusion . . . Antonius: Soldier of Fate
Marcus Antonius has it all—power, prestige, and a heroic military reputation among his countrymen. But as master of Rome’s eastern provinces and kingdoms, he must maintain peace, and in so doing, sacrifices his own happiness, yoked within a loveless marriage and an eroding alliance. As his colleague Octavian’s star rises, Marcus must compete with his rival’s success, though it leads to an embittered struggle threatening to end their unity.
Once Marcus finally takes matters into his own hands, his fate becomes tied to the east—far from Rome and his seat of power, to a horrific campaign that will forever alter him, and to the love of Egypt’s Queen. He is a man torn between two countries and two families, and ultimately—a soldier fated to be the catalyst transforming Rome from Republic to Empire.
Brook Allen has a passion for ancient history—especially 1st century BC Rome. Her Antonius Trilogy is a detailed account of the life of Marcus Antonius—Marc Antony, which she has worked on for the past fifteen years.
In researching the Antonius Trilogy, Brook’s travels have led her to Italy, Egypt, Greece, and even Turkey to explore places where Antony once lived, fought, and eventually died. While researching abroad, she consulted with scholars and archaeologists well-versed in Hellenistic and Roman history, specifically pinpointing the late Republican Period in Rome.
Brook belongs to the Historical Novel Society and attends conferences as often as possible to study craft and meet fellow authors. In 2019, Son of Rome won the Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Award. In 2020, it was honored with a silver medal in the international Reader’s Favorite Book Reviewers Book Awards. She graduated from Asbury University with a B.A. in Music Education and completed a Masters program at Hollins University with an emphasis in Ancient Roman studies. Brook teaches full-time as a music educator and works in a rural public school district near Roanoke, Virginia.
To connect with Brooke and check out her books:
The Antonius Trilogy on: Amazon
Goodreads: Brook Allen
Brook’s Editor & Cover-Designer: Jennifer Quinlin
Tonya Mitchell is the author of A Feigned Madness. For more on her and her book, visit her website. To order her book about Nellie Bly and her 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.
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