The Secret of the Roman Coin: a serendipitous interview with Tom Harper
A series of coincidences brought about this interview with historical thriller author Tom Harper …
Sandy is an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist who lives in Malton, UK, and often goes fieldwalking in the area near the Roman fort of Derventio. Mostly, she picks up pieces of Roman pottery, but one day she happened upon a bronze coin. It was badly corroded and she wasn’t sure what date it was. She brought it into work to show me, as she knew I was an archaeologist. At first, I wasn’t even sure it was Roman, and then I saw what looked like an altar on the reverse of the coin and was convinced. My partner is also an archaeologist and specialises in Roman coins so I took it home to him for proper identification. After careful examination he came to the conclusion it was a coin of Crispus, a son of Constantine the Great, the 4th century Roman emperor who made Christianity the official state religion. Though not rare, the coin is not particularly common either.
Cut to the Festival of Writing in York a few weeks later. I was attending on the Sunday only, and amongst the workshops I went to was presented by Tom Harper, who talked about how he does his research. But it was lunchtime when we were introduced to one another by conference organiser Kate Allan. We talked things-historical and I mentioned that someone had brought in a Roman coin for me to look at. And that it was a coin of Crispus. Tom was surprised, particularly as his next novel (The Secrets of the Dead ) includes Crispus. Tom was eager to handle the coin, and we all met up for a coffee a couple of months later. He was able to see and touch a coin from the 4th century, and one that is specifically tied to the person he has written about.
Tom was born in Germany in 1977, and partly brought up there, and in Belgium and America. He went to Oxford University to study Modern History. But at Oxford, modern is defined as being from the reign of Diocletian (AD285) onward! So he was able to pick and choose from a wide range of history. Rather than specialising in the Late Roman era or the medieval, he attended a mixture of courses – anything that took his fancy. And this has proved to be a theme running through his writing. His tutors noted that rather than his essays focussing on detail, he liked to investigate the big picture and tell a story.
After graduating, he took a job in insurance and eventually realised that it wasn’t for him, after the small company rapidly developed into a very large business. Rather than starting with writing short stories, he tried his hand at writing a novel, preferring the larger canvas a book provides. That novel was very much an apprentice piece and won’t see the light of day as Tom reckons it’s very silly. Though he wryly notes that a few years ago a film was made which covered similar territory to his first attempt at writing.
What really set Tom’s writing career off was the Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger competition in 2001. The award required 3,000 words and a synopsis. Tom saw this as a good exercise rather than something that might actively further his writing career, and set about entering his idea for a novel about Martin Jerrold, a reluctant hero in Nelson’s navy. Tom was surprised to get a call from the CWA asking if they could show his entry to some agents. Of course he said yes! His entry was a runner up in the competition, and he was subsequently signed up by an agent.
It all snowballed from there. There was a bidding war been publishers and eventually Tom got a three book deal. He was able to give up his job to concentrate on writing. Because the first deadline for the series was quite long, he thought he could also write other books so suggested a Byzantine-set crime series. This was picked up by another publisher, which led to the creation of a pen-name.
To keep the two series separate, he wrote the Byzantine series with the pen-name (Tom Harper), rather than his own name (Edwin Thomas) under which the Jerrold series was written. He chose the surname Harper as he liked the connection that it has with medieval harpers who would also be story tellers. And Tom, of course, was part of his real surname. Having two books to write a year proved hard going. The first book was relatively easy, but as time went on, the deadlines got tougher to meet. He’s now quite happy with long deadlines.
Unfortunately, the Jerrold books did not sell particularly well. The first one did OK, but the other two didn’t do well, and the publisher decided not to continue after the third book. But the Byzantine stories sold healthily. These are set in the late 11th century, at the time of the First Crusade, so Tom was able to get his crime-solving character to follow the progress of war. The first book is set in Byzantium and the following two are set at the siege of Antioch and the capture of Jerusalem. They are something of a hybrid in that the crime-solving element is somewhat overtaken by the events of the Crusade.
The last of the novels was finished late and came in very long. It had to be edited right down and then extra bits written to ensure the story worked properly. When Tom finally finished, he was pretty much burnt out and ready to move on.
Because Tom’s publisher unexpectedly had a vacant slot for their thriller of the month title, he decided to have a go at writing one. Having greatly enjoyed watching an Indiana Jones film, he was inspired to write an archaeological based thriller set in 1947. He had a deadline of six months, but in contrast to the last Byzantine book, writing the thriller was easy, disciplined and great fun.
Tom has moved into writing what could be called ‘Time Slip’ novels, in that they have a modern story and also an historical story. So it’s half and half. Tom reckons he’s having his cake and eating it, as it allows him to research historical themes whilst also having a modern element which can help put the history into context. He doesn’t have a particular historical period of interest which means he really can pick and choose where goes next. So when you read his thrillers you may be surprised where he takes you.
Tom is sanguine about the rise of electronic publishing, as long as the price of them is similar to that of the hard copy. All of his books, writing as Tom Harper, are available for Kindle.
He’s recently moved to different publisher and has another three book deal which will run from 2013 to 2015. Tom lives in York, and thanks to his wife, who is a lecturer at the University, it looks like he’ll be living in this richly historical city for some time to come.
Tom’s experience with the Crispus coin came too late to be worked into Secrets of the Dead, but it played a vivid role in bringing the author very close to the subject of his research. You’ll have to read the book to find out what role Crispus has!
This article first appeared in the Historical Novels Review, November 2011, pages 13-14