What would have happened if Alexander the Great hadn’t succumbed to the illness that killed him in Babylon?
This is basis for Alexander Cole’s new book and covers what Alexander planned next after defeating all of his enemies in the East. Turning West towards that great maritime power of Carthage, Alexander takes his newly acquired Elephants and heads to Africa and further glory.
Travelling with the elephants is Gajendra, a young Mahout with a burning ambition and a talent for war. Coming to the notice of Alexander, Gajendra and his Elephant, Colossus begin a rapid rise up the ranks of the Macedonian army.
With fame, money and everything his heart desires, Gajendra looks set to fulfil his every dream but will being that close to the dangerous flame that is Alexander end up burning him?
I was very pleased to be asked to take part in this Blog Tour for Alexander Cole’s launch week. My review will follow later this week for here is a Q&A with the author himself.
1). What made you choose Alexander the Great as a focal point for the novel, considering the mass of literature already out there?
I had no interest in Alexander per se – it seemed to me that there was no story there, only biography. Then I was talking history with my publisher and he said he had always wondered what would have happened if Alexander had not died in Babylon. Had I ever thought about writing about that? Even then, I saw no story in it, only speculation. It was only when I saw him as the antagonist, and not the main character, that the idea for the story began to take shape.
2) How much research did you have to do for this book?
Even though it’s alternative history, I did as much research as I would if I were writing one of my historical novels. I read everything I could find about Alexander, his character, his life, his methods. And his new ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – his elephants – how would he have deployed them? What were his key strategies, at Gaugemela, at the Jhellum River? What did he learn? What had he been? What was he about to become?
And then there is the long history of elephants used in peace and war. How were the trained? How could they be defeated?
3) The Hero, Gajendra, is burning with ambition and greed, which can be a disagreeable traits. How did you ensure that the reader empathised and liked him?
Well he is ambitious, but that was only one part of him. After all the battles described in the book, the deciding battle takes place inside Gajendra, when he has choose which part of him is going to win out. Because there is this other part of him, the side of his character that the elephant, Colossus, responds to and that his lover, Mara, is attracted to. But his problem is that his greatest strength – his compassion – he sees as a weakness. What will happen when his heart and his ambition collide?
4). Colossus the elephant is a major personality within the book and at times threatens to overshadow both Gajendra and Alexander. Was this a deliberate ploy or just came about as you wrote about him?
No, I always imagined that the book would have four major characters; only three of them are human. From my research into elephants I discovered that they do have personalities, as we do; they even grieve. So I always planned Colossus as a major antagonist and without him the story cannot move forward.
5). The book is set in the world of, what If Alexander had survived his ‘illness’ in Babylon. Why did you choose this alternative history?
Because I won’t mess with real history – all my novels till now have been set against historically correct backgrounds. I couldn’t do this here – Alexander never had war elephants until after his last major battle on the Jhellum River. I could have placed the action with Hannibal perhaps, but Alexander was the perfect animal to set against my tusked beast. I liked the mythological elements such a scenario suggested. Besides, the first words every novelist says is not ‘mum’ – it’s ‘what if?’
6). What is next for Gajendra? Will we see further books with him?
Perhaps. If this book does well, then I’ll think carefully about that. There are plenty of possible storylines – after all, when he dies, his empire’s own game of thrones is about to begin.
7). What made you want to write this novel?
Because of the elephant, and because of Alexander. This was a very different type of story for me, and although I liked my two leading characters, it was the nature of the two antagonists that made it utterly compelling for me.
8). Can you describe your ‘typical’ day writing?
If I’m planning a novel then it’s scraps of paper everywhere, scribbling, muttering to myself, walking up and down, boiling kettles and forgetting about it, making coffees and leaving them to get cold, being generally irritable and restless until I can see the whole thing. That’s the hard part. Then I start writing. That means getting up at dawn, writing 5000 words before lunchtime and then stopping. I enjoy that part. Second and third drafts are slower, obviously, but by then I know it’s going to come together so I become halfway tolerable again.
9). If you could give one piece of advice for aspiring authors what would it be?
Read Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory. Understand how much there is to learn before you start writing. Learn the craft. And understand why people who write for the theatre are called playwrights with a ‘w’. It should apply to all wrighters!