It's always wonderful to meet authors who, like me, are fascinated with all things biblical/historical/conspiracy/thriller-ish!
So it's especially cool to interview Dominic Selwood, historian, rock star (see below!) and author of The Sword of Moses, which is a fantastic fast-paced Biblical thriller backed by impeccable research.
Tell us a bit more about you and your writing background
I grew up in Salisbury, a place which fired my imagination a lot. The austere windswept trilithons of Stonehenge intrigued me. The great seductive Gothic cathedral seemed like a time machine to another world of amazing creativity. And the vast green plain, with its ancient images carved into the hillsides, was endlessly romantic.
I also spent some years in Cyprus, which was a sleepy place back then. I was free to roam about the ancient temples and ruins with no tourists or fences. It was an amazing place for daydreaming. I went to boarding school in England, then university in Oxford, Paris, Poitiers, Wales, and London. I did my doctorate on the Knights Templar, the real medieval ones. In 1999 I published a textbook on the Templars called ‘Knights of the Cloister’.
I then started working life, and have spent most of it doing law of one kind or another. But I knew I wanted to write a thriller. It became my all-consuming hobby: early in the morning and late at night. ‘The Sword of Moses’ came out in 2013. That year I also started writing a history blog and occasional column for the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.
In March 2015 I brought out two ghost/horror stories in the style of M R James, my all-time favourite ghost story writer, They are ‘Suffer the Children’, which is typical of M R James’s antiquarian tales, and ‘The Voivod’, which keeps the late 1800s/early 1900s feel, but is darker and more violent than his stories ever were.
How have you combined being a historian with writing fiction? The two would seem to be quite disparate in terms of writing style!
Yes, they are very different. Writing ‘Knights of the Cloister’ needed a dry academic style. ‘The Sword of Moses’ was a whole new departure, requiring scenes, characters, plot, and twists. My journalism is quick and factual. Finally The ‘Voivod’ and ‘Suffer the Children’ are written in a style that is 100 to 125 years old.
So you are right: they are all different. That said, the basics are identical, because even history, to be readable and engaging, has to tell a story. I think the job of a writer is to deliver the story in a way that is clear, digestible, and enjoyable. So there’s a basic technical process of words, sentences, paragraphs, grammar, and punctuation that is common to all writing. After that, you can be a chef, and cook and combine them any way you feel confident!
The Sword of Moses features the Ark of the Covenant, as does my book EXODUS. Why is the object so fascinating and what was the most interesting part of your research in this area?
Objects that have been in contact with ‘deities’ tend to end up being sacralized. This is not just a religious phenomenon; it applies just as much to Einstein’s house or Elvis’s bedsheets. In this context, the Ark of the Covenant is a ‘super relic’, because it is sacred to billions of people in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is, really, in a league of its own. But when you get down
to it, relics like the Ark are essentially magical objects, and I think our collective fascination with them is driven by the fact that, on some level, most of us want magic to be real.
During my research, I became captivated by the Ark as a historical object (rather than a biblical symbol). What can we know of it? How old are the descriptions of it? Are they reliable? What was it made of? What metallurgical technology was required? What did Hebrew decoration in the period look like? And so on. Many of these questions get answered in ‘The Sword of Moses’, so I am not going to spoil it here!
My readers love a strong female character. Tell us about Dr Ava Curzon and why you decided to use a female protagonist as a male writer?
I wrote the book I most wanted to read. I conceived of ‘The Sword of Moses’ as a fast action thriller with lots of brainteasers. The limitation I find with many male protagonists in this genre — like James Bond or Indiana Jones — is that they shoot first and, if you are lucky, ask a question later. I wanted my lead character to unravel the codes and puzzles intellectually rather than bludgeon the answers out of someone. There is also a family story mixed up in the plot, and I wanted the emotional unstoppability of a strong woman seeing a job through.
Of course, there was going to be lots of fighting to keep the story edgy, but to me it all added up to a female heroine. She would be bright, thoughtful, unconventional, focused and, when she had to, capable of seriously kick-ass combat. I want to read more books with women action heroes because we all know that in the real world some of history’s most formidable spies, most audacious explorers, most tenacious athletes, and most lateral thinkers have been women. What more could you want from the lead in an action thriller?
Finally, I knew that I was going to be spending a lot of time with my lead character, so I had a slightly selfish reason for wanting to make her an accomplished woman whose company I knew I was going to enjoy!
Conspiracy is an important part of the book. Tell us about some of your favorite conspiracies and why you wanted to write about them.
Oh. That’s a huge question! I have always been fascinated by the Knights Templar. Some of my earliest memories are hanging around an old Templar castle in Cyprus, where I lived for several years. I love the fact that more and more people are interested in the Templars, but at the same time it is getting harder for people to know what is reality and what is myth about them.
So part of the idea behind ‘The Sword of Moses’ was to make the Templars a central part of the drama in a way which would allow me to tell parts of their real story in a fast-moving way while updating them to the present day. ‘The Sword of Moses’ also has quite a lot of Freemasonry in it, because you cannot really have the Templars without the Freemasons. The combination of the two is a dream to write about, as there are so many possibilities!
We both went to Oxford – I was at Mansfield College – how have you incorporated the city into your writing? How does it continue to influence you?
Oxford has appeared in a lot of my writing. It is such an extraordinary place that it makes an amazingly rich and varied setting. In ‘The Sword of Moses’ some key scenes happen in an Oxford college and also in the great medieval Bodleian Library. (I am surprised they let me back in after what I made happen there!!) More recently, ‘Suffer the Children’ is set in 1904 and starts with a fellow of an Oxford college setting out on his Christmas vacation to Norfolk, where he discovers some terrible things in a country house library.
‘The Voivod’ is set in Oxford in the late 1800s, and is the story of a monstrous, cursed book acquired by the head of the Bodleian Library. I spent many happy years in the Bodleian researching my doctorate on the Knights Templar and I still go back when I can, so it is the ‘go to’ library in my head. It also helps that it is so massive — and so mysterious — that one cannot help imagining what lies in its deep underground book stacks!
What are the themes that obsess you and keep coming up in your writing?
Old manuscripts and books. Dark magic. Heresy. Ancient religions. The crusades.
Talismans. Superstitions. Rituals. Secrets and secret societies.
Puzzles and enigmas. Espionage. Violence.
What books and authors do you read for pleasure?
A lot of varied writers, really. For the spooky and horror stuff: M R James. Sheridan Le Fanu, H P Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe.
For the occult Dennis Wheatley. For action and adventure: Chris Ryan, Andy McNab.
For sheer wow: Jorge Luis Borges. For ‘classics’: Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens. Oscar Wilde.
For detective: Arthur Conan-Doyle, Colin Dexter. For historical fiction: Umberto Eco. For war stuff: Sven Hassel, Alan Judd. For modern classics: Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marques. If I could only pick three, I’d take M R James, Jorge Luis Borges, and Thomas Hardy.
What do you do when you are not writing?
My other great passion is standing on stage in noisy pubs belting out old school hard rock. I am happy playing guitar, bass, or drums. At the moment I am playing bass in a great London rock band that has been around since the late 1980s. We play their own brilliant original material, and lots of crowd favourites like Led Zep, Deep Purple, and Van Halen.
There is simply no feeling like turning up, flicking on the amp, hitting the first note, and watching the bottles behind the bar start vibrating as you launch into the opening song. Bliss!
Where can people find you and your work online?
You can find The Sword of Moses here on Amazon.
Images: Flickr Creative Commons Stonehenge by spacial, Templar sword by timrich,