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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Mind Behind The Empire of Moghul: An Interview with Alex Rutherford




Alex Rutherford is the pseudonym for the writing duo of Diana Preston and Michael Preston. They have written several historical non-fiction books. Raiders from the North (reviewed here) is their first adventure into the fictional aspect of writing.

Mihir Wanchoo was able to conduct an email interview with half of the writing duo, Diana Preston.

A big thank you goes out to publicist Caitlin Raynor for making this interview possible and to Diana Preston for taking the time to answer our questions.

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Could you introduce yourself and tell us how you got into writing?

I was always very interested in history and English literature. At Oxford University I read the Modern History course which wasn’t that ‘modern’ – I spent most of my time studying mediaeval history and loved working with original sources. While still a student I got involved with journalism both at the university and starting to write for national magazines – often historical or travel features. While doing some other jobs I continued to write part-time. Eventually about fifteen years ago I began with my husband to write non-fiction books such as one on the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott and the story of the 17th century buccaneer, scientist, explorer, William Dampier – the first European to reach Australia and whose writings inspired Swift and Defoe to write Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.

Why did you choose to write under the pseudonym “Alex Rutherford” for these historical fiction books?

We decided to use a pen name to keep our work as non-fiction and fiction writers apart since we take different approaches to the two. Initially we wanted to keep our identities a strict secret and it was only after much pressure from our publishers in the UK, US and India that we agreed to ‘out’ ourselves.

What was it that led to your choice to write about the Mughal dynasty in your fiction debut?

The decision wasn’t sudden. Our love of and interest in India began long before we ever thought of telling the Moghuls’ story. Over the years we’ve travelled all over India from the Rajasthani deserts to the Dal Lake in Kashmir. The great Moghul monuments of northern India – Humayun’s tomb and the Red Fort in Delhi, Akbar’s tomb, the Taj Mahal and the Fort in Agra - overwhelmed us. We became increasingly curious about their creators and started to read the Moghuls’ own diaries and chronicles. They revealed to us a compelling dynastic saga combining the high emotions and rich cadences of grand opera with enough edge-of-the-seat historical drama to fill a dozen big-screen epics and inspired us - after writing a non-fiction book on the story behind the Taj Mahal - to write these novels.

One of the most human and compelling parts of the story is that for all its outward brilliance the Moghul dynasty carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Their inheritance from their ancestor the great Timur was the warrior code that the strongest takes all. With no law of primogeniture, Moghul princes fought each other and even their fathers for the crown. The succession was never secure and jealousy seeped corrosively down the generations. The story of the Moghuls is one of sons plotting against fathers, brothers murdering brothers and half-brothers and of empresses and would-be empresses plotting, scheming and seducing. Re-creating this in a series of novels was irresistible.

In this age wherein more than 90% of authors have an online presence either in the form of websites or blogs, how come you don’t have an official website? Is there any specific reason or do you just like to take a classic approach as practiced by authors of an earlier era?

We’re both quite private people and would prefer our readers to focus on our books not us. We’re also quite old-fashioned - we neither blog nor tweet in our personal life. However, we are currently updating the website about the Moghul quintet for our British publisher Headline to include further Readers’ Circle questions, a brief interview and some pictures of our travels in the Moghuls’ footsteps.

In your biography it is mentioned that both of you have travelled extensive, which countries have you visited & could you recount any memorable experiences which you had?

We love travelling and have now clocked up 140 countries. Some incidents do stick in the memory like being stranded on a remote island off the coast of Borneo and having to hide from pirates, or, while researching William Dampier, having to dodge FARC guerrillas and Colombian paramilitaries as we crossed the Darien Isthmus in Panama on foot with local Indian guides. Even more scary was knowing the deadly fer de lance snake was around.

To get away from the snakes we waded waist high in rivers – our guide said snakes can’t bite and swim at the same time but we still don’t know if that’s really true. But perhaps our most dangerous moments were in the Antarctic while working on our book about Captain Scott and the race for the South Pole. Our Russian research vessel was nearly lost in the Ross Sea in one of the worst storms in Antarctic history with 140 knot winds (over 150 miles per hour) and nearly 60 feet high waves. The life rafts washed overboard and the superstructure iced up like the inside of an old fridge, putting us in danger of capsizing. There are lots of lovely memories too like crossing the border from Siberia into Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian express to Beijing one New Year’s Eve. The Mongolians decorated the compartments with green branches and tinsel and sang beautiful, mournful songs about their mothers and their homes as they passed round bottles of Russian champagne and vodka and outside the snow fell.

Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write this series and besides the royal accounts like “Baburnama” & “Akbarnama” what other accounts or books did you look into?

To write this series we drew on the research we had done for our non-fiction book about the building of the Taj Mahal, (‘A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time’ in the UK and ‘Taj Mahal’ in the US) which included as much material as we could find on the Moghuls. We read research by other writers and historians into aspects of Moghul history from military strategy to customs in the harem to food of the period and spent many hours in Oxford University’s Indian Institute Library. But our chief focus was on original source material and we are fortunate there is so much. The Moghuls weren’t modest. Some of the emperors wrote their own accounts and almost all employed court chroniclers.

We have been able to draw the major events - battles, coups, deaths, executions - and the principal characters from the sources that have survived. As well as Babur’s own account of his life the Baburnama – the earliest autobiography in Islamic literature – and the Akbarnama written by Abul Fazl, Akbar’s chronicler, which covers Babur, Humayun and the Moghuls’ early days as well as Akbar, we also have, for example, the Humayunnama written by Babur’s daughter Gulbadan and the account by Humayun’s cupbearer, Jauhar. The physical and emotional detail of the Moghul period is superbly captured in these chronicles and also, for the later Moghul emperors, in other surviving letters and diaries that convey the sheer excitement of events as they unfold. They burst with compelling, exuberant stories not only about great battles and the passions of family politics but more intimate things like the number of an emperor’s concubines and the frequency of his couplings, the name of his favourite war elephant, the cost of his bed linen and the way the empire was ruled.

For the later emperors beginning with Akbar, we also have the accounts and letters of European visitors - merchants, mercenaries and missionaries - to the Moghul court. These reveal the visitors’ open-mouthed wonder at the spectacle of Moghul wealth and sophistication beyond anything the European courts could offer. To Europeans, the magnificent Moghuls were like characters from an exotic legend. They fastened on every fantastical aspect of Moghul life - gems the size of duck eggs, the gold-leaf decorated food and rose-scented wine prepared for the imperial table, the number of wives and concubines the emperors enjoyed and the other sensual aspects of Moghul life. A French doctor, exceptionally invited into the imperial harem to treat a woman there, wrote in amazement that he could not locate her pulse because so many ropes of pearls were wound around her arms.

You also visited Mumbai/Bombay,India in April this year for the release of “Brothers At War” how was your visit & are there any anecdotal events for you to recollect?

We spent nearly five weeks in India in April/March on a combined research trip and book tour. Our abiding memories are of being stranded for eight days in Mumbai by the Icelandic ash cloud which gave us time to go to the caves of Elephanta, eat at some of our favourite Mumbai restaurants like the Copper Kettle, watch the IPL on TV and take an even closer look at the Mumbai Indians who were staying in our hotel. We also went to the re-opening of the Oberoi Hotel to see how it has been renovated after the terrorist attacks. It looks amazing and is a symbol of how the city has recovered from the trauma.

You have written seven previous books under your real name along with your husband on various topics and places such as the Taj Mahal, discontent in China at the beginning of the 19th century, Robert Scott’s Antarctic expedition, etc. What made you select the topics and people that you wrote about?

With all the books we’ve written whether non-fiction or fiction we’ve always looked for strong story lines, events and people you can empathise with and –if possible – good original sources so we can really understand events through the eyes of those who experienced them and take that immediacy to our readers.

Could you elaborate on the journey you went through from the germination of this series up to finally seeing “Raiders From the North” in bookstores?

Our journey began about four years ago when we first came up with the idea of an Empire of the Moghul series of historical novels. Before we could show the idea to publishers we had to work out the overall scope of the project, how we would break the story down between individual novels and – pretty important – how long it would take us to assemble all the research material and actually write it. When we were ready our literary agents put our proposal to publishers and we were delighted by the response in the UK, US and many other countries around the world where the series is appearing. Using the framework we had already drawn up we began to research and write the first novel’ Raiders from the North’ often doing the two activities in tandem – the research never really stops until the book goes into final production which is usually around five or six months before publication.

So how long have you been working on the Empire of the Moghul series and how much has it evolved from its original conception?

We’ve been working intensively on the series now for over three years – the second in the series ‘Brothers at War’ has just been published in the UK and India and comes out in the US and elsewhere soon. The project itself has stayed pretty much as we originally envisaged when we first suggested it to our publishers but the techniques we use to get the story over and involve our readers continue to develop which is one of the exciting things for us.

I have read that you plan to write a total of five books in this series and focus upon the first six emperors beginning from Babur leading all the way up to Aurangzeb. Do you think five books would be enough to cover the lives of these six men?

We thought hard about this when we first came up with the idea for the series and think that five books is probably right for containing and conveying the dynamics of a story which begins in the late 15th century with Babur and the Moghuls’ rise in central Asia and - we believe – comes to a natural end with the death in his son’s captivity of the fifth emperor Shah Jahan at a time when the once glorious empire is already in decline in the latter 17th century. The sixth emperor Aurangzeb will of course feature strongly in the last novel but we feel that by the time he came to the throne the character of the history changes and it’s the right time to bring our story to a close.

Could you tell us about your writing process and especially how do you & your husband go about it? Does one of you first write a draft and then the other one re write it or do you both write different sections and then combine it?

We collaborate on a detailed chapter structure for each book then subdivide that into scenes and decide who is going to write which scene. We then go away and when we’ve finished each shows their work to the other and we discuss and develop it further, talking through aspects like the tension of the action, our take on character development, motivations etc. The way we work is very iterative. In a way we’re a bit like a small script writing team.

Who are your literary idols? What books have you read recently that you would like to recommend to the readers?

Lawrence Sterne for the first real modern novel, ‘Tristram Shandy, with a blank page part way through for readers to contribute which is pretty innovative for the 18th century; Jane Austen because she understood human nature so well; Ian McEwan for his unique take on universal themes and Donna Tart for her masterly sense of the macabre in everyday things.

Have you decided what you will be writing next after the “Empire of the Mughal” series ends? Will you be exploring other eras in Indian history or will you moving on to other nations?

We’re not sure what we’ll write about next. While we were on our book tour in India many people suggested we write about earlier phases in Indian history like the emperor Ashoka but we still have a way to go on Moghuls and it’s absorbing us pretty much completely at the moment.

What led you to write using the third person narrative. What was the reason for this choice? What's your idea in the debate between using first or third person narratives in any story?

We chose the third person to give us as much flexibility as possible for putting our main characters over. Although the early books in the series are told mostly from one person’s point of view we knew from when we first planned the series that the later novels would be covering more diffuse stories with more voices and the third person approach seemed to us to deliver what we wanted most effectively.

Lastly amongst the six emperors whom you plan to write about, which one has intrigued you the most and why?

Babur for his vision, courage and the sheer excitement of his life and also for his ability to write so vividly about it! His diaries tell you everything from how to cement the heads of your enemies into a tower, to how many tulips grow on the hillsides around Kabul to the taste of a ripe musk melon. Of the all the emperors Babur is perhaps the easiest to get close to.

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