In Ancient Rome, Aqua et Ignis — water and fire — were the two elements which symbolically contained most of everyday life. To deny them to someone — an interdictio aquae et ignis — was a sentence of exile, the exclusion of a culprit from the common life with his fellow countrymen.
This is a story of water and fire — of lunacy and piracy, of exile and ghosts.
“The matter I am about to discuss with you is rather sensitive, on both a personal and state level,” he began. “May I have your word you will keep our discussions here in confidence, whether you take the case or not?”
“Of course,” I nodded, thinking to myself that politicians rarely separated personal and state affairs. Up close, I could see the creases in his face, signs of stresses and hard work that were the price of his position.
“We had a rather successful year, my co-consul Pinarius and I. We pushed through some important legislation and accomplished much of our manifesto. Pinarius, in particular, had some success on a military campaign dealing with rampant piracy. But upon his return, he withdrew from public life. He wouldn’t even come to the traditional ceremony of nailing the sunken pirate ships’ rams to the rostra in honour of his achievements. We needed to give an explanation for his absence, and Ballenus here recalled the archaic custom of observing the skies for omens. We spread the word our consul is concerned about the fate of the republic and has retired to seek the gods’ wisdom. But that is hardly an adequate excuse, and tongues are wagging.”
“Indeed. One of next year’s consuls was making fun of it in the Forum just now,” I said.
“Already?” Labienus face darkened. “Filthy vultures. Anyway — Pinarius and I are old friends, but I am worried his recent behaviour will tarnish both our reputations and diminish our auctoritas, our public standing. After my proconsulship next year, I was very much hoping to make censor one day. I need you to relieve Pinarius of that which plagues him, so we can finish the year on a good note.”
“Why me, though?” I asked. “What makes you think he needs my particular skills?”
“Quite frankly, you’re our last hope,” said Labienus. “If it was merely a health issue, we could have worked with it — turned him into a hero who toiled his life away at the service of the republic. But the man has become utterly paranoid. He hides in dark corners and wraps himself in a blanket, refusing to come near any light. He won’t eat and barely drinks. All he does is mumble incoherently about ghosts from his past, about exile. His family and staff are at their wits’ ends, and none of us can make any sense of him. All the physicians we brought in were quick to simply proclaim him mad, but I know Pinarius. He is not one to crack like that. There might, I believe, be some real ghosts haunting him.”
A Bite of… Assaph Mehr
As Assaph bottled out, Felix has stepped in to talk about working with authors
Q1. How do you approach an author and secure an appearance in their books?
Ah, there’s the rub. Attracting an author is hardly a problem. The poor souls wander everywhere, from city to remote wilderness, tagging at the sleeve of any passing person to interview them. One can hardly walk down the street without noticing an unkempt figure sitting in front of an open book, sketching people appearances, taking frantic notes ‘for later’. If you make the mistake of eye contact or – shudder – stop to talk to one, they’ll pester you with questions. From “What was your favourite toy as a child?”, to “What emotional trauma made you who you are today?”. Quite invasive.
And then they fly off on a tangent – “Forget the war council, where does the king poop and who cleans it?” They’ll insist they need to know everything, lest they be caught out and called frauds for lack of ‘research’. And in the end, after you bought them dinner and drinks and spent an evening away from your duties answering all your questions, they’ll just say, “You know, you’ll be perfect for that walk-in shop-keeper part in the second act. You’ll be immortalised! Even if it’s only two lines and I’ll have to change your name.”
No, my friends, attracting an author is like attracting rabid dogs with a juicy steak. Concentrate instead on finding the right author. First, you must demand a sample of their writing. Once received, critique it! Kill their darlings and see how they take it. Any author without a thick skin is unlikely to make it in the business and will just waste your time.
Speaking of which, ask for their publication record. You don’t want to spend days telling your life’s story, only to get stuck with one of those who only produce an infinite chain of drawer-bound drafts. Make sure your chosen author is there to publish. The rewards, they say, wait for those who do. Ask them who their editor is, and have they booked a cover designer. Ask them about their pre-launch marketing plan and their long-term series strategy, and for gods’ sake don’t sign anything without seeing the audio-book and film rights clauses.
Ensure you get creative freedom to go on your own tangents, but remember that they own the overall vision and execution of the story. It’s ok to tease them with exciting anecdotes while they’re taking a shower, but don’t abuse their sanity too badly. Work with them.
Lastly, this is about forming a trusting business partnership, for mutual benefit. Almost incidentally, remember that you don’t have to like them – but it helps.
Q2. How do you deal with the misery heaped upon you, knowing it’s done for entertainment value?
You do realise very little of it is real, right? When you go see a play and the actor playing Oedipus is killing his father and then himself, you know that the actors aren’t really dead, but get up and walk away to the paymaster’s office. Likewise, us characters never really die, but live on in the mind of the next reader.
As for the miseries themselves, they are highly exaggerated. Say you want to tell a funny anecdote that happened to you the other day, to add some levity to your story. You start with “So there I was, walking down the street to get some bread—” when you are rudely interrupted.
“Why?” they’ll ask.
“I was hungry?”
“No, no, I mean your inner motivation. What conflict were you trying to resolve?”
“Really, I just wanted a snack…”
“Didn’t you have food at home? Were you poor? Did your wife leave you? Divorced! I see it now. Here, let me write this down, Recently divorced, Johnny found himself braving the dangerous city streets on a stormy night, holding tight to his last copper coin and hoping the baker would give him yesterday’s stale leftovers. The shop was closed – it was closed, right? it must have been – and it proved to be the last straw. As his hunger pushed him to break in, Johnny realised that there was nothing holding him back now, no one to keep him away from a life of crime. A dog came and peed on his leg. In the rain.”
So there you have it. Just like the movies depict a highly-stylised, completely inaccurate version of reality – one where you’d need to double check if New York was indeed on the east coast if you saw it in the cinemas – your life’s adventure will be digested and turned into entertainment, with little resemblance to true events. Like an actor, accept that sometimes it’s your role to be infuriating, or suffer hardship, or die gruesomely, all in the name of “making it” in show-biz. Carry out your part well, and you shall forever be remembered by the multitude.
Q3. What do you get out of it?
Not paid, certainly. I haven’t seen a royalty cheque in ages. I’m giving you hard-earned tips here, so you learn from my mistakes.
But those few, those lucky few, of us characters who do manage to land a proper author – one with both vision and execution – will truly become immortal. Don’t be afraid to dream! Whether it’s seeing the Wikipedia article about you (which you can’t edit to correct inaccuracies because you’re not ‘objectively qualified’), or the blockbuster poster with Tom Hiddleston and Lily White playing the lead roles of your life’s story, or entering the language as a household name – dream, and dream big!
Yes, alright, your chances of achieving these dreams are miniscule, let’s acknowledge that elephant. But if you don’t tell your story, if you don’t work with an author, the chances are nil. So have your dreams and your adventures ready to tell, find that right author, and persevere!
Assaph Mehr has had his nose in a book since he was five, so it wasn’t surprising that he turned to writing. All those years reading on ancient Rome, sci-fi, fantasy, and mysteries while practicing various martial arts, travelling the world, and working odd jobs lead to some interesting combinations in his stories.
Tonight, for something truly different, and because Assaph bottled out, rather than interviewing an author for their insight into the writing process or mental instability, we interview a protagonist. He’s here to give advice to other potential characters on how to best work with that insane breed of humans called “writers”.
Felix is a failed student of magic (could no longer pay the fees), an ex-legionary (an honourable – honourable, I say! – discharge), and current investigator of the occult (for cases no one else will touch). There’s enough of that going on to earn him a respectable living, which is the only thing keeping him from a career of con-man. Here, if you know someone with an unusual problem, pass them this business card:
Assaph, on the other hand, didn’t finish high-school (though it didn’t stop him from going to uni), practiced martial arts for 30 years (but never got into a fight), an ex-soldier (if you ask him what he did he’d have to kill you – even though we keep telling him there’s no shame in being an HR clerk in charge of little bit of green paper). Now he’s a product manager by day (a fancy way of saying someone who doesn’t have any authority and is busy explaining to developers what the customers want – and to customers why they’re not getting it). By night he drinks single-malt Scotch with Felix, as they share delusions of grandeur about one day “making it” in the publishing business. To can find him on Facebook, Twitter and his Website.