History, Fiction and Non

Whatever possessed me to tell uber-expert Dr. Amelie Kuhrt that I’ve made Cambyses I a depressed opium addict subject to the clutches of an evil groundsman in ancient Persia?! It couldn’t have been the alcohol — I was drinking tea, she hot cocoa. But what what a thrill to be able to talk nonstop for hours at a cafe in central London with this most formidable scholar of ancient Near Eastern history and literature. Our topics ranged from Cyrus II, Nabonidus (we share a fondness for the much maligned king), and women such as Atossa and Irdabama, to the complex landscape of religion in ancient Babylon and Persia, from food and drink, to clothing and climate.

Then I went and spilled fiction on the table. Dr. Kuhrt is a scholar of the highest order. She interrogates widely accepted ideas, unwavering in her attention to distinguishing what we can know on the basis of concrete information from what may be, what is propaganda, and what is simply wishful thinking. She has furthered the scholarship of ancient Persia considerably with an impressive oeuvre, and I respect her work tremendously. Truth is, she’s also got a delightful sense of humor. Her response to my creative interpretation of the state of Anshan’s king when he is reunited with his son, the ten-year-old Cyrus, revealed both: “Poor Cambyses!,” she exclaimed with a smiling grimace; and “but he is called a great king, you know.” I have indeed worked the latter into the story; but the addiction piece works, too, though it’s purely a product of my imagination.

Finally, I suppose that one of the great challenges of writing historical fiction is both to assemble and master all the available relevant facts and theories, and to set them aside in the service of creating a good story, letting the research inform and infuse a work that at the end of the day is at least as true to the imagination as to the facts.

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