Today I’m happy to feature an interview with debut novelist Lew McIntyre. Besides my usual desire to support indie writers, I was intrigued by the unique premise of this historical novel and had to know more.
ABOUT THE BOOK
The Eagle and the Dragon takes the reader on an epic journey of thousands of miles by sea and land across three continents. When Senator Aulus Aemilius Galba is tapped to lead the first Roman mission to China, he anticipates an easy path to fame and fortune. Gaius Lucullus sees a bright military future, but his reluctant centurion Antonius Aristides would rather be somewhere else. Translators Marcia Lucia and her brother Marcus were taken from their village in China to serve the Han court, abused and despised, hiding a horrible secret. A notorious Arab pirate, with a Roman price on his head and crucifixion in his future, shadows the entourage, seeking the wealthy prize of their treasure-laden ships. But Fate has other plans for these unlikely companions, sending them together on a journey that will take them thousands of miles by sea and land across the tapestry of the mysterious worlds at the close of the first century. From the storm-tossed Indian Ocean to the opulent Hanaean court, from the wild grassy steppes north of China to the forbidding peaks of the Pamir Mountains of Bactria, they fight for their lives, hoping to find the road that will lead them back to Rome.
What was your biggest inspiration for writing a work of historical fiction that hasn’t seen much representation?
My current work in progress actually began in 1995 while reading an historical book, The Ancient Mariners, by Lionel Casson, which described the Romans reaching the court of China around 166 AD. Apparently the emperors even knew each other’s names, indicating previous contact. This set my imagination ablaze when I learned from other sources that this definitely was not the first such expedition. I set out to write a short vignette on how two Roman soldiers, part of my fictional expedition in 100 AD, would find life in China so different in culture from their homeland. From that few pages was born The Eagle and the Dragon: A Novel of Rome and China. That same book, and others, gave me a grasp of the complex network of trading routes that spanned the Indian Ocean in that era, the sophisticated ships they built, and complex social, cultural and linguistic problems they would have to solve, and that kept the firing burning… basically at every step of the way, I had to ask myself, “Now what problems would I encounter doing that?” This was quickly followed by “Now how in the hell would I solve those problems with just first century tools at my disposal?” As I wrote this novel, it often seemed at times that I was taking dictation from my characters! It was a labor of love twenty years in the making. When I was finished, I read Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the ancient lands of Arabia, India and China, by Raoul McLaughlin, which I read after I completed my work; he stated that the 166 AD mission was to seek the alliance of China with Rome against Parthia, modern day Iran and Iraq! This verified what I had hinted at was one far-fetched objective of my fictional mission, to determine if that could be a possibility, or if perhaps Rome should settle their differences with Parthia and ally with them against Han China!
Historical fiction done well requires a lot of research. Tell us something interesting you learned while researching The Eagle and the Dragon.
I think the most amazing thing I learned was how globalized the world of the first century was. When I began, I knew Rome very well, because that empire, the father to our own civilization, has always been a big interest of mine. I knew China existed, that it too was sophisticated, but I hadn’t studied it much. What I didn’t know was that from Roman Spain to the Pacific Coast of China, there were just four empires, all more or less equals: Rome, of course; Parthia, their archenemy; Greek-speaking Bactria “of the thousand richest cities” which is ancient Afghanistan and Central Asia; and Han China. While probably only a handful of hardy souls ever made that trek the whole way, ideas flowed along the Silk Road along with trade in both directions. Bactria was the nexus of Buddhism and Greek philosophy, almost all of which has been lost to us; what must have been their prodigious literature did not survive the ages. There were Buddhist converts in the city of Rome; the Bamyan statues of the Buddha, destroyed by the Taliban, were wearing Greek dress. It was an amazing world, almost unknown to us today.
My heroine was of the hardiest of souls to make that trek, not once but three times, twice west overland and once by sea going east.
What impact does your previous career as an engineer have on your writing?
Well, I still am an engineer! I haven’t quit my day job yet. The first impact is that engineering and everything else I have done, Naval officer, aviator with 4,500 hours of flight time, time at sea on a deployed carrier, these things bring real experiences that shape what I put on paper, because many of the things and places I write about, I have been there, done that. I have been in storms and fights, been scared, had to use my wits.
Engineering specifically brings an analytical character to my life. I like to say that the humanities teach you that there are many right answers, properly expressed. Engineering teaches you that there are also some that are flat wrong. I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1970, the last hold-out of the Renaissance education: engineering, mathematics and physics majors had to take history, read literature, write poetry, and understand government and economics, while English history and government majors had to take calculus, thermodynamics, electrical science and physics, up to and including elementary special relativity. As a result, I, and I think most of my classmates, are comfortable in the worlds of both the sciences and the humanities.
If you had to travel back in time to the world of your novel, what role would you play? Is there a particular character you most identify with?
I like the centurion, Antonius Aristides, the most. He comes from a humble beginning, the first-born citizen in a family whose forebears were slaves. He worked his way up from the ranks from common soldier to the primus pilus “first lance” senior centurion of legion, the ancestor of a color sergeant major. Despite his position he feels socially awkward, or maybe just doesn’t like being around high-class people, and he is surprisingly shy around women. He loves his people, he takes care of them, even when he bawls them out or kicks their ass. One of the things he always does on the trip (he is not part of a legion on the trip) is to take a band of miscreants and mold them into a fighting force. He loves training people, and he is good at it. He is very well-educated, mostly through his own efforts, but has always kept that side of himself hidden: he does not want to put himself intellectually above the common soldiers he leads, nor put on airs before his officers.
Looking toward the future, what other projects are you currently working on?
My next one is nonfiction: True Believers, the Founding Fathers of TACAMO. TACAMO (Take Charge and Move Out) is a strategic communications aviation community with which I began my aviation career, flying EC-130 Hercules. I still support that community from my engineering job at Patuxent River, though they now fly the E-6B Mercury, the very last production of the Boeing 707 airframe. A “community” is an airframe and a mission that has an established career path that can lead you ultimately to command of one of the squadrons, alternating between squadron tours with increasing responsibility and shore duty assignments in support of that mission. When I came to the squadron it was not a community: the commanding officers came from patrol aviation, the mid-level department heads were all passed-over LCDRs from patrol and transport squadrons with no future in front of them except to retire on twenty, and a bunch of ensigns, LTJGs and LTs who thought they Navy career was over before it had even started, unless they could get out into patrol aviation. In short, a McHale’s Navy backwater. A very significant commanding officer tried to impart a vision and measure of professionalism to us — you can imagine how that went over! — and gave a few of us the idea that this could amount to something if only we were bold enough to make it happen. About fifteen of us, for various reasons, got his vision, and came back to a community that didn’t exist yet, and brought it to life.
The book is a collaborative effort by a bunch of us “True Believers,” beginning with Bill Coyne, that seminal CO, with how he conceived his vision; myself; Ed Hampshire, with whom I flew many hours over the Atlantic; Fil Baca, our first homegrown CO; and Vern Lochausen, my first navigation student and one of our first Commodores. We are about 80 pages into it but still herding cats, trying to get the rest to submit or finish their chapters.
And finally, leave us with a short excerpt from The Eagle and the Dragon that shows us why we should read this book!
The storm at sea is my favorite part!
The sailor came down to the hold, not with dinner, but with a key. He unlocked each man in turn while two sailors stood guard, holding back a bit in case the Romans tried to make a break. The three men rubbed their wrists and ankles, trying to get the circulation back into the pinched flesh.
“To what do we owe this honor, sailor?” asked Antonius, in Greek.
“Topside. Captain wants you,” the sailor replied with a strong accent.
The three followed, Galosga and Gaius aiding the none-too-steady Antonius up the ladder through the hatch onto the deck. They blinked in the dim light of a stormy evening near sunset, clouds glowering gray and gloomy. A steady wind keened over the deck, humming in the rigging, spitting stinging spray from the crests of waves. Gaius noted that only the artemon and the mainsail remained deployed, half-furled by brailes. All the other sails were bound fast to the yard. The sailor separated Galosga from the Romans, and led them into the master’s cabin, what had formerly been their quarters. He then left, slamming the latch shut firmly to keep the weather and water out. The stateroom was dark, the windows shuttered, glass removed and stowed. An oil lamp swung lazily from the overhead with the ship’s motion, casting a fitful glow throughout the darkened room.
Ibrahim was seated at the desk. “Antonius Aristides. How pleasant to see you again! Come in, sit down, both of you,” he said in Greek, motioning to the empty chairs.
“No, thanks, I’ll stand. Been sitting all day,” Antonius responded in Latin. He spat, working the thick gobbet of spit into the polished floor with his toe.
“Suit yourself, Roman dog.” Ibrahim refused to change languages, and continued in Greek. “We have a bad storm coming, and I will not leave you to drown, chained in the hold of a foundering ship. However, make no mistake.” His arm snaked out of his robe and a small knife flashed through the air over the desk to land with a quivering thunk, transfixing Antonius’ spit inches from his big toe. “I have no qualms about killing you, and I may do so yet. But no man deserves to die in chains, alone, not even a Roman.
“We will need every man to work the ship, if we are to live,” Ibrahim continued. “You two will work with my sailors, hauling lines and doing what you are told. If you try to make more of this than it is, I will throw you overboard. Understood?”
The deck pitched upward vertically and rolled to starboard, the ship shuddering as the bow stumbled back down into a big wave. The spray spattered over the quarterdeck above their heads. Ibrahim studied the two men intently, as they studied him. Then Gaius responded, also in Latin, “So be it. We shall talk later!” It was not a question.
Ibrahim produced two coils of rope from under the desk. “You will wear safety lines at all times tonight. That is not just for you, but for all the men as well. These waves can wash you over the side with no warning.” He handed them the ropes, fitted with bronze hooks at the end. Outside, to give emphasis to his words, a wave broke over the starboard rail with a boom and a crash of splintered wood. Shouts of men could be heard in half a dozen languages, swearing as the water rushed about the deck. The ship staggered to port under the blow, buckling the men’s knees as the bow plowed once again into a wave, and the load of water hissed off the deck. It was going to be a long night. “Now out!”
Outside, the darkness had grown much deeper, although it was just sunset. Rain spat fitfully, propelled by the wind into horizontal stinging pellets. The sails were now fully reefed, the bare poles and rigging moaning in the sustained winds.
The seas were mountainous, waves rolling by in slow, unhurried grace like passing elephants, plodding but unstoppable, as the wind ripped white spindrift from their tops. The Europa rode up and down the sides of these huge rollers, pitching and bucking like a tethered horse. And tethered she was, to a host of sea anchors deployed from her bow and stern. Occasionally she would catch a wave from the wrong angle and it would explode in a dark torrent over the gunwale, boiling fiercely, running down the scuppers and back out overside. Everything, the sea, the sky, the ship and the men themselves, was in shades of black and gray.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lew McIntyre is one of Southern Maryland’s newest authors, specializing for now in historical fiction, having just published two books, The Eagle and the Dragon, a Novel of Rome and China, and Come, Follow Me, a Story of Pilate and Jesus. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1970, with a BS and MS in aeronautical engineering. He spent his naval career in aviation, flying “Take Charge and Move Out” TACAMO EC-130s and the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) E-4B, a Boeing 747. He retired as a Commander in 1970 to begin his second career supporting TACAMO E-6B Mercury aircraft at Patuxent River, MD as a senior communications systems engineer with SAIC. He lives in La Plata with his wife Karen, who doubles as his editor, literary critic and inspiration. They have two children, Jesse, married to Nicole, parents of their grandson “Bean” Benedict, and Katy, married to Tim Bristow, with granddog Penny, soon to head off to the UK. Besides writing and working at Patuxent River, Lewis enjoys biking, running, hunting and amateur radio.