About me and my books
Hello, I’m Roger Crowley, a British historian and writer. My aim is to produce well-researched books for general readers – narrative history in which the stories of the past can live. My particular interest is in the Mediterranean world, as well as maritime history and relations between Islam and Christianity with an emphasis on first-hand eyewitness accounts. I’m the author of five books: 1453 about the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, a close successor Empires of the Sea tells about the sixteenth century contest for control of the Mediterranean, a history of Venice City of Fortune, and Conquerors on the Portuguese voyages of discovery.
Coming out on November 5 a book about the fall of the city of Acre, the ‘Alamo’ of the crusades, The Accursed Tower:
What inspired me to write
I come from a naval family and the sea has always been an important part of my life. As a child my father was stationed on the island of Malta and going there was a formative experience that sparked my fascination with the Mediterranean world. After school I travelled widely in Greece. After university a spell teaching English in Istanbul was also critical. I love that city; its history, both Byzantine and Ottoman, is infinitely fascinating. It has stayed with me all my life.
Thirty years later the city became the subject of my first book, 1453. The idea to write it was also inspired by the interest in the historical relations between Islam and Christianity after 9/11. It seemed to be a good moment to tell this story. I am always excited by finding good eyewitness narratives. There’s nothing that excites me more than stumbling of personal accounts of the past, particularly if they have not been used before. I also really enjoy the writing itself – choosing the words to put down on paper. With history, in a sense, you’re given the story but there are hundreds of ways of structuring the narrative and that’s a creative act too.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
In history I think it’s over-explaining – to the point of tedium. You need to know what kind of audience you are writing for. Mine is general readers rather than academic ones, people who are interested in history but are not specialists. Does the readership need to know the technical detail of a political problem in sixteenth century Spain just because I’ve learned it? Sometimes less is more – don’t exhaust your readers’ patience, and try to remember who you think you are writing for. I’m personally not a reader of very long books.
Tips on choosing covers and titles
With my books it’s simply having a short, punchy and memorable main title and a more explanatory subtitle. My books are produced by different publishers in the US and the UK and I’ve made the mistake once of having a book with different titles for the two markets. This just confuses people. Covers are almost always in the hands of the publisher in my experience. When the publisher sends me a cover idea saying ‘we love this cover’, it’s usually code for ‘actually this is it and we’ve spent the budget’. Occasionally I’ve protested but not to much effect and I’m not sure how important the cover image is to the books I write. When it comes to covers I’ve noticed that the UK and the US produce very different cover designs: two nations divided by different style tastes and market considerations? I generally tend to find US cover design taste rather baffling and prefer UK covers but I do trust publishers to know their own market better than I do.
Dealing with bad reviews and negative feedback
These things go with the territory and are inevitable if you write for a while. Perhaps even a bad review is better than no review. Some bad reviews are quite valuable if based on an objective assessment and I have learned from criticism. On other occasions there’s a moment when I want to quiz the writer: has he or she actually read the book? I can’t say I’ve encountered anything too hurtful, but we do have to accept that being out there in print is never going to get a seamlessly positive reaction and we just have to accept it and move on. Perhaps absolute silence is worse: nobody has bothered to notice what you’ve done.
Has my creative process improved over time?
In some respects I think it’s deteriorated. The first book I wrote (1453) I planned in great detail, mapped out all the chapters and wrote two complete chapters as part of the initial submission. I had a complete road map and it made the writing enjoyable throughout. As I’ve gone on I’ve planned less. Sometimes I now get the structure wrong – I’ve started in the wrong place and ended up throwing away 30, 000 words. I’ve done this twice.
The best, worst and most surprising things about writing
The best things: the sheer pleasure of writing, choosing words and putting them on the page, the creative structuring of the narrative – these are all satisfying. I love the unexpected discovery of wonderful source material. I also make fascinating research trips to interesting places. For the book about to come out, The Accursed Tower, I spent time in the very ancient city of Acre (or Akka or Akko – depending on language) in northern Israel. It stayed very much in my mind (You can read about the place based research for the book at: http://rogercrowley.blogspot.com/ )
On the negative side: it’s essential for me to read source material in other languages so I spend a fair bit of time learning to read (but not to speak) various languages. I’m not a natural linguist – ploughing through pages of 16th century Portuguese is like chewing concrete. Also the production process can get laborious because every book is edited twice – and differently – once in the US and again in UK. This means two sets of often different editorial queries, index checks, proofing stages – the double process is lengthy and can get tedious.
Most surprising: I get emails from people who have taken vacation trips based on the history in my books. It’s both humbling and immensely rewarding – over and beyond (hopefully) being paid it’s a rich reward that the books have really meant something to other people.
Personal satisfaction or aiming to serve the readers?
Definitely both – I want to write the books that I’d like to read – my own taste in reading – but I also want to excite others to read…and to buy the books! Being paid matters. I would be unlikely to write about a subject that didn’t interest me but had wide popular appeal. The balance between the two imperatives is important. I guess first I get inspired by something that has real interest, then I carry out some kind of audit as to whether it will go in the market. Sometimes I pitch a couple of ideas to my agent to get some external feedback on whether it will be sufficiently popular.
Plans for future books?
As yet unformed. I need a short rest just now – I’ve been writing for some fifteen years. But there will be more books – almost certainly about the history of Europe.
I am related to Aleister Crowley, the occultist, described in British papers in the 1920s as ‘the wickedest man in the world’:
During the 1970s and early 1980s I made three longs walks across Turkey in the company of donkeys (and human beings) – days of dust, sunlight and friendly people, nights of stars and flea bites: