International Festival Of Authors ~ Fall 2011

Ten Questions with Jack Mitchell

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Ten Questions with Jack Mitchell

Toronto writer Jack Mitchell was born in New Brunswick and grew up in Ottawa, Ontario. The Ancient Ocean Blues (Tundra Books) is his second historical fiction book for young readers. He wrote his first book, The Roman Conspiracy (Tundra Books), while completing his Ph.D. in Classics at Stanford University. Check out his website for The Ancient Ocean Blues here.

OB:

Tell us about your latest book, The Ancient Ocean Blues.

JM:

The Ancient Ocean Blues is the story of Marcus, a rather cynical, unadventurous young man from Rome, set mainly in the year 62 BC. High on the list of his cynical dislikes are ancient Greek romance novels, which, unfortunately, are particularly prized by Paulla, the girl his parents have arranged for him to marry. As a result of his involvement in electoral corruption in Rome, however, Marcus finds himself traveling aboard ship to Greece with Paulla, increasingly caught up in the world of the Greek novels he dislikes: shipwreck, slavery, disguise, pirate battles – Marcus would much rather be studying rhetoric in school, while Paulla is in her element. They’re joined by a main character from my first novel, The Roman Conspiracy, named Homer: he views their adventures through the lens of excessive literary erudition, and often saves the day. Our heroes meet a number of historical figures (Cicero, Atticus, Caesar, Pompey), Paulla has a fine time, and Marcus endures it all.

OB:

How did you research your book?

JM:

As a classical scholar, I was familiar with the main elements of Greek and Roman life I would need to tell the story ¬– what people ate for breakfast and whatnot – as well as with the events of 63 and 62 BC. But since much of the book takes place on board ancient ships, I did have to learn a lot about how those ships were built and operated: a rather recondite science, on which not all experts agree. JSTOR is great for that.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

JM:

I’d had the good luck to meet several young adult readers of my first book, The Roman Conspiracy, and I was really writing for them first and foremost. I wanted to create a story that featured a good deal of sophisticated humour that they would appreciate. But I think an author always writes a book that he or she will enjoy, and in my case especially a book that I would have enjoyed when I was mainly reading Young Adult fiction myself.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

JM:

Ideally I would get up in good time, have a hot bath while listening to an audiobook, get out and briefly take in the Tuscan scenery, spend the morning dictating to a secretary, have a light lunch with friends, spend the afternoon hearing what I’d dictated and whittling it down to one tenth the length, composing like a bear, i.e. by licking. Apparently it worked for Virgil. In reality I just need a comfortable chair, a large computer monitor, a supply of coffee, a deadline and a few CDs.

OB:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

JM:

My first published book was The Roman Conspiracy, published in 2005 by Tundra Books of Toronto; my first-ever publication was a lyric poem about Paris and Helen and the Trojan War, I think when I was about 10, in a students’ poetry collection in Ottawa called Stir & Simmer.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

JM:

I just finished Liddell Hart’s vast History of the Second World War, which was quite enlightening as to how the war was actually conducted. At the moment I’m reading The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré, a very brilliant novel.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

JM:

Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco, Cordillera by Norbert Ruebsaat and How Canadians Govern Themselves by Eugene Forsey. I might toss in my own Canadian epic poem, “The Plains of Abraham,” by way of self-promotion.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

JM:

“Saepe stylum vertas, iterum quae digna legi sunt / scripturus,” as Horace says – if you’re going to write something worth reading, you’ll often have to delete what you wrote before (literally, turn the wax-marking tool upside-down, using the blunt end to erase: the Romans composed on wax tablets before anything got “printed” with ink on relatively expensive papyrus).

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

JM:

I had the great pleasure of seeing The Roman Conspiracy nominated for a Red Cedar Award in BC, for which young adult readers are themselves the judges and the reviewers. One review on the Red Cedar website was simply “THIS BOOK WAS AWESOME,” and I’ll always remember reading that because it’s like the quintessence of what an author is looking for in a review, especially the capital letters.

OB:

What is your next project?

JM:

I’m hoping to write a third book in my Young Roman Adult series, after The Roman Conspiracy and The Ancient Ocean Blues, this time about Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Instead of having a Roman narrator, though, I’d like to have a Gaulish narrator, so that readers could see what the Roman Empire looked like from the outside. It will feature a lot of chariot racing, since the Gauls still used chariots in battle at this time, and the narrator will be a chariot driver.

". . . a very funny tongue-in-cheek adventure story that will keep a reader turning the pages, laughing all the while." —Mary Thomas in CM Magazine

"The Ancient Ocean Blues has all the elements of an adventure: romance, high, fast-paced action, heroic deeds, gut-wrenching suspense and yes, happy endings!... a well-researched story which proves myths and legends are timeless. It is historical fiction at its best..." —Resource Links

"Using a combination of historical figures and his own characters, Jack Mitchell has created this romp – rife with humour and authentic detail – through the heyday of Roman power."
Canadian Children's Book News

Read more about The Ancient Ocean Blues at the Tundra Books website.

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