Zibby Owens: Today I’m interviewing Conn Iggulden by phone. Conn is a best-selling author of historical fiction, most notably the Emperor series and Conqueror series. He also cowrote The Dangerous Book for Boys with his brother Hal, who he calls Harry, Iggulden, and most recently, The Double Dangerous Book for Boys with his sons Arthur and Cameron. A graduate of the University of London and a former English teacher and department head, Conn currently lives in England with his wife and four children.

Welcome, Conn, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for coming on the show.

Conn Iggulden: It is a pleasure.

Zibby: How did you come up with the idea for The Dangerous Book for Boys and the newest, Double Dangerous Book for Boys, newly released? What inspired you to write these books?

Conn: The original book was back in 2006. It was partly because I had a son. I started to look around for the sorts of books I’d had in the house when I was growing up. My father was born in 1923. His father was born in 1850. He had my dad very late which meant we had titles of books with things like 101 Chemical Amusements for Boys in the house. They would say, “Go to the apothecary and get a sixth of an ounce of flower of magnesium,” or something like this. You couldn’t do it anymore. I looked around for modern equivalents. When I found there weren’t any, I thought, before I forget it all, I’ll settle down with my brother, six months in a shed. We’ll see if we can knock it all up into a book. We didn’t expect it to be popular. We didn’t expect anyone to enjoy it.

He said to me, “Do you think it’ll be a best seller?” I said, “Honestly Harry, no. There are loads of books published each year. It’s very hard to get into the top ten and all the rest of it.” This is true. “We will get complementary copies from the publisher which we can give to my kids and your kids when you have them. You’ll have these. It’ll be something that we did together for six months. That’s it. That’s what we’re doing. These are just making decent memories.” It turned out to sell really well. It turned out there are a lot of people out there who cared about the same thing. That remains one of the most satisfying things that I’ve done, was discovering that connection. I didn’t really know it before. I thought it was him and me setting things on fire. It’s fun to discover that were so many out there who are also interested in stories of courage, and making a bow and arrow and a catapult and a go-cart and conkers, and all the rest of it. That was joyous.

Zibby: It goes back to this whole write what you love. You’re doing something for the pure joy of it. Then people respond to that, versus if you had tried to write a best seller. I know you have written many other best sellers in your historical fiction genre. If you had tried, maybe it wouldn’t have come out so well.

Conn: Exactly. My normal writing life is to write about Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. I try and write exciting and interesting stories. This was literally taking six months off. In those days, I was eighteen months ahead of publication. The publishers always like you to have a second book in the can before the first one comes out so that they’ve got a constant and they know when to put it in the year and things like that. I thought, eighteen months is a long time. I can just get rid of six of those, write this other book, and I’ll still have a year. I was trying to squeeze in a personal project in between my main line. That was the one that took off. It was a real surprise. It was a joyous surprise. The second book, The Double Dangerous Book for Boys, that’s after twelve years of having — that first son now is, gosh, he’s nineteen. My second son is twelve. Between them, an awful lot of the ideas came from them. They would bring home a Rubik’s Cube. They’d bring home a padlock and be talking about the fact that they were trying to pick it. My youngest son came back from a class and said, “I learned how to use sign language to sign H-I so that I could say hi to people behind the teacher’s back.” I thought, brilliant, that’s got to go in. These are great ideas.

An awful lot of them were things that came from the two boys coupled with things I wished I had put in the first one but never got around to it, things like casting items in resin, which I’ve always admired. Learning how to do it was fun. When we were doing it, nothing could drop dead within a mile of our house without immediately being put into resin and set in Perspex forever. It was one of those fun things. Once we discovered how to do it, it was great. We were dipping coins in there and doing dung shapes and all sorts of things. Things like making perfume, for example, everybody has that experience — this is more common than I realized — of trying to make perfume for their mother, often on Mother’s Day. They steal a lot of flower petals from gardens nearby and then boil them. It ends up as a dirty brown water. It neither smells nice, and it does not look nice. I remember mine was in quite a nice perfume bottle that I’d got from somewhere. Her expression had to be seen to be believed. Discovering there was a way, an actual technique to do it properly and use white lard to soak up the scent — one or two of the things I wanted to do was to make the bad things that we tried that didn’t really work too well, to make them better. That has been a lot of fun.

Zibby: I bet. My son is twelve. He went off to boarding school this year. I gave it to him. He and the boys in his dorm have been pouring over it. Thank you for that.

Conn: Good. I never intended it to be a sort of book that you would start at the beginning and read all the way through. I hope it’s a book you dip into. I’ve defied a few people to say, “Open the chapter list and see if there’s anything that catches your eye.” There is always something. Then with any luck, they’ll read on to something else. I’ve got loads of things in there such as legends of ancient Greece and Rome which are just interesting to know. It’s one of my things that I’m always keen with my sons in particular, that they get a lot of satisfaction from knowing things and be able to make things and do things, yes, but also to have a bit of their own, not secret knowledge, that’s the wrong word, but expert knowledge. It gives them a sense of control in the world. I would say this is a male characteristic. It seems to be more than for women. They seek to control the world, an uncontrollable world to some extent, the chaos of it, by throwing chains on it, by trying to understand and become experts in certain areas. It seems to work for them. It’s recognizable, the male expert on a particular thing, whether it be ancient coins or trains or Dyson vacuum cleaners, is a thing. It’s something we do. You can call it trainspotters or nerds or whatever it is. I think it’s that it’s trying to make the world less chaotic by understanding a part of it.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. I feel like so many of the skills that you include in the book are things that might get pushed aside in favor of teaching new things today. Then you miss so much. Putting in how to tie a Windsor knot, how to build a fire, these elemental things, why is no one teaching our kids how to do these things? Then they grow up.

Conn: Sometimes they are. They do a fantastic job in Scouts, for example. There is an awful lot of the business — I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. You sit a kid in front of Teen Titans or SpongeBob SquarePants and leave them alone for three or four hours. The trouble with that is everything good that I remember, all the good stories from my childhood pretty much started because the television was awful. There were three channels in those days in England. There was no morning television. Television stopped at about midnight and went down to a white point on the screen after the national anthem. I am old enough to remember this.

Zibby: I was going to say, you’re really dating yourself here.

Conn: My dad grew up in an era before television was even invented. We do go back a long way. My grandfather, he grew up near a horse on the Charge of the Light Brigade. He went to see Wild Bill Hickok’s Wild West show. Talk about dating, that goes back a fair bit. The point of these things is that when we went outside, we had adventures and had memories and did things and made things and crafted things that have stayed with us for the rest of our life, even if it was being chased across a park by a man I’d angered. This sort of thing, you don’t get it if you’re sitting inside watching fourteen episodes of Teen Titans or getting to a new high score on Crossy Road or becoming a famous screenname on Call of Duty. It’s not good for you. It’s not good for you in the same way. We’re not looking to supplant the internet or to replace it. It’s too entrenched in many ways now. I hope that these are things that will be in addition to, that people will read and do them and want to know them and want to learn them and want to learn the skills. I think it’s useful.

Zibby: I think people are craving it. People are so overwhelmed by technology and the prevalence of it that they’re longing for “the good old days.” A book like this can help take you back. It’s the tour guide, if you will.

Conn: Yes, it’s something we’re all having to comes to terms with. I said that TV was terrible when I was kid, but it’s not terrible now. The point is there’s such a level of — there are so many thousands of episodes. I could find any fifty episodes of decent comedies to watch right now. That means that there’s so much entertainment that I have to make a conscious effort to step away from it. Whereas when I was a kid, if Ben-Hur came on, it’d be four hours of television. To your absolute amazement, you’d go out for the day and come back and it would still be on. It wasn’t as gripping. That meant that we did an awful lot out of sheer boredom. That is a force that is almost vanishing from the world. JK Rowling famously looked out of a train window for a whole hour and thought about Harry Potter. It came partly because she had nothing else to do. She’s now on Twitter. If she was on Twitter back then, then we would never have got the boy wizard with the strange scar. These are things that come out of not being too stimulated by constant entertainment. There’s always something going on. To some extent, that’s a problem that adults will have to deal with separately.

For children, we know it’s not a good idea. We know that the more screen time leads to less happiness. It’s observable. We know that generally when people talk about mental health and anxiety, there are some things that will help with it, but none of them are being on a phone or being on social media or watching twenty more episodes of Modern Family, even though Modern Family’s brilliant. The things that will help are getting a good night’s sleep. I say this to my kids. When your problems are overwhelming, go to sleep. When you wake up, your problems will be exactly the same, but you’ll be slightly better able to deal with them. Honestly, that might sound like trivial or trite advice, but I didn’t really understand that until I was about in my thirties. It’s the first thing I do when there’s an overwhelming problem. I go to sleep almost immediately. That’s one thing we know. We know exercise is more important than — anyone would realize when it comes to anxiety and your mental health — I know people who have literally run from depression. They have run miles every day. Even though it seems unrelated, if you feel down because of a financial problem or a relationship problem, it’s like the sleep thing, you feel better able to deal with it.

The last is those crafts and skills. There is something oddly calming about gaining confidence through becoming competent. If you can make something like a simple elastic band gun out of scrap wood or if you can set things in resin and polish it with toothpaste until the thing’s like glass, it’s calming. Actually I’m reminded, I did a chapter on polishing shoes like the British Army. That came from the fact that I met a soldier who said one of the happiest times in his life had been sitting in a room with five or six other guys. The windows all steamed up. They were just working on their boots for a parade the following day until they were like black glass. He said it was just that thing, just talking and sitting and working in tiny little circles on their boots. He said that it was one of the happiest, calmest times of his life and something he looked back on with great nostalgia. That kind of thing is important. You don’t find that, you really don’t, when you’re wearing a headset and screaming at someone to destroy all the others.

Zibby: Totally. You obviously created this experience with your own sons by doing the book with them. They even said thank you. No matter what happens, the best part was the time that you all spent together experimenting and fine-tuning some of the tips that you included.

Conn: That was the nicest thing. With the Rubik’s Cube, my son Cameron came home with it. He was the only one who could do it. He claims to be able to do it in twenty-nine seconds. No one has been able to get him below forty-four in public, but he claims to be able to. He would come home, and then we all had to do it. He oversaw it. He wrote out the instructions. Then I did it. My wife did it. My daughters did it. My youngest son did it so that we could be certain that absolutely anybody could do it who didn’t know the Rubik’s Cube and didn’t have any previous knowledge. We did this sort of thing together and as a family, whether it was playing Risk together or playing Cheat or card games in general or playing daft things like the bowl of flour. You have a match standing up in it. Each of you slices away a piece of the flour until the match falls over. Then you have to pick it up in your teeth which usually ends up with flour all over the place and somebody choking on great clouds of it. It’s fun. We did all these things together.

The first rule of the book was that if we couldn’t make it work, it didn’t go in. That was underpinning every chapter. There are some things I didn’t put in because I just could not get them to function properly. We did the blowing the lid off a tin using flour blown across a candle stub. I just couldn’t get it. I couldn’t get it to ignite. It’s a famous experiment, I suppose you can call it for want of a better word. We could not get it to work. Therefore, I couldn’t put it in. The experience of working together, quietly often, as a family, teaching each other stuff — my son Arthur taught all us all how to do a jumping paper frog. Now I can do one. Cameron can do one. Honestly, it’s oddly satisfying. It’s quite difficult to put my finger on why it’s satisfying. It’s something I can do. It’s a decent craft. I can make a good paper airplane. I can make a good paper frog. I can make a little paper box that is as neat as anything you’ll ever see. All those came from working together. It was a good thing to do.

Zibby: Your daughters, did they feel a little left out? Your two sons got to write this book with you. I have four kids, two boys and two girls too. I feel like if I did something just with my sons, my daughters would kill me.

Conn: I know what you mean. My daughters are sixteen and thirteen. They knew I was doing the sequel to the original Dangerous Book for Boys. They knew that on the whole I was celebrating boy-ish things. I did the first one with my brother. We were looking back to our childhood. This time I was doing things with the sons. They do know that. At the same time, obviously quietly, as you well know if you have the two daughters, you can’t keep them out. They were involved in an awful lot of it. We did things like the frustration games and the suggestions that came from them. We did actually keep a list of all the things they were involved in. At the same time, it doesn’t change the title of the book. The title of the book is intended for boys and by boys. As it happens, some of the chapters were inspired by my daughters. Of course they were.

Zibby: Do you have plans to do more of these? How high are you going? Quintuplet?

Conn: Funnily enough, originally I said I hadn’t got anything else to do. I hadn’t got anything else to add in. Then twelve years went past, and I had more material than I could shake a stick at. That’s how the second one came about. I thought, that’s got to be it. Then in the months since it’s been finished, we’ve already started to put a list together of things. There are always more stories of courage. You hear of a good one. In this one, the Double Dangerous, I went to see a man called Victor Gregg talk. He was in his nineties. He had driven about a hundred miles to get there. He was driving home afterwards. He told a story of his time during World War II which was so ridiculous and extraordinary. He was in already every key battle. It was just unheard of. By fluke and by sheer back luck for the most part, he was involved in some of the major actions of World War II. As a result, I thought, I’ve got to put his story in. It is a terrific unknown, almost, story of courage. They’ll always be new material like that.

I’ve got to tell you this. My son Arthur came back from Scouts the other day. He had something. It was like a three-foot dart out of wood, a big stick basically, or a dowel. He’d sharpened the ends so it’s a decent point. Then he added cardboard flanks to it with Celotex. It was really cheap. It was like the cereal package stuff. We went outside and we threw it. It didn’t go as far as I’d expected it to. Then he showed me that they had told him in Scouts that if you wrap a piece of string around it three or four turns, not much more, and hold the end in your hand and then hold the dart between finger and thumb, as you let go of it, you hang onto the string so it rotates and spins through the air. It goes about twice as far. That’s brilliant. I said to him, “Why didn’t you come and tell me this when I was doing the book six months ago? I’d have put that in.” It means eventually I suppose we will have to do a Triple Dangerous or something like that because there are so many good ideas out there.

Zibby: Tell me also, you are a super successful historical fiction author with series and tops of the charts. How did you become so interested in writing historical fiction? I know you had been an English teacher. How did that start?

Conn: Probably, the interest in history does come from having, partly the grandfather who had a link to history and my father who seemed to have lived through most of it. He was in bomber command in World War II and dropped just about everything you can drop from a plane. He had lots of good stories, like the time he was sent over with a French spy and had to try and get the man to parachute out even though he had a fear of parachuting. There are wonderful stories like that that gave me a connection to history. Also, my mother grew up in Ireland in the 1930s and became a nun at the age of fourteen in a closed order. She never expected to come home again or see her parents again. She stayed as a nun until the age of thirty-four. As it happens, the Catholic Church loosened up a little bit. She was able to come home in the full black-and-white wimple to see her parents. When she eventually left the convent and, thank goodness, had children — She left the convent to have children. She met my dad. Frankly, he had no idea what hit him. I was obviously delighted by that. It gave me a contact with a past that was very, very different. They used to go to church on Sunday with a pony and trap. It was a different era. I had a sense of history being closer, I think, than most people do.

Don’t forget, I wrote a book a year from the age of eleven to about twenty-eight with no success whatsoever. They turned me down every time. The difference came when I was in a history classroom. I was covering someone else’s lesson. I was an English teacher. I came across a scene of Augustus Caesar throwing the heads of Julius Caesar’s assassins at the foot of his statue in Rome. I thought, what sort of an extraordinary relationship must that have been to want to do that? There are twenty-three assassins. Not a single one of them died a natural death. Everyone knows the end of this story, but I’d like to have a little more. I was very lucky. I came across a book called Caesar by Christian Meier, M-E-I-E-R. That was brilliant. It was a great introduction. It told me about Julius Caesar being captured by pirates at the age of eighteen, which he was and was held for ransom for months. I thought, there is a story here. I wrote it for two years. Everyone knew the Titanic sank. Everyone knew Julius Caesar was assassinated, but not how he got to that point. His name was general knowledge. They didn’t know the full beginnings. It was the beginnings that made the end make sense. I set out to write that. That went really well. I was influenced, or my readers were, by Gladiator the film. It came out. I remember watching it in the darkness thinking, oh god, don’t let it be about Julius Caesar. I’m a year in. This is going to kill me. As it happens, it wasn’t. It was brilliant. It was an engine for Roman fiction for a while. Although, I stayed with Julius Caesar for four books at that point.

Then I went on to Genghis Khan who was a much harder sell. Everyone’s heard of him, but the only thing they know is he was a destroyer of cities and nations. The fact that he was a great brother and father and son and grandfather — he was a wonderfully doting grandfather — was completely lost on them. The story of Genghis Khan is a warm family story about family and about love. They , admittedly, the destruction of cities and nations. I’m not being funny, but of course that went on. It’s just that it gave me a chance to approach it in a way that appealed to both sides of my character, the bit that likes the destruction and the bit that likes the stories about people. I’ve had a lot of access to history through my relatives. At the end of the day, it’s all good stories. We like those stories. We’re the only creature on the planet that ever gathers around and listens to someone talk about history or books or people. At the end of the day, we’re just interested in people. That’s not such a bad epitaph, really.

Zibby: Very true. You have written so many books. You’ve obviously stuck with it despite a lot of rejection. How do you do this? How do you beef yourself up to say, “I’m going to keep doing it. I’m not going to be discouraged by what people say”? How do you maintain that positivity?

Conn: At first when I was rejected for year after year after year — I used to put hairs from my head in between the pages to see if the publishers were even reading them. Very often, the hairs would still be there. I thought, aha! Years later I said to an editor that I used to do this. He said, “Oh yes, lots of people do that. We always make sure the hairs go back in the same place,” which is pretty cruel. The point is that I liked writing. In many ways, it was my hobby. Even if I finished a book and I photocopied it twenty times and I sent it to twenty publishers or twenty agents, and nobody picked it up and everyone said no and sent it back with enormous enthusiasm so that it would arrive on my doorstep — thump, thump, thump — over the next few days, even then I didn’t mind too much because it just meant I had a chance to write another one.

The only difference with the Julius Caesar one was that I liked it so much that I took two years over it rather than usually about a year. I spent enormous amounts of time on that. I said to my wife at the end, “I think this is the best I can do. I have been doing this since I was a very small kid. If this doesn’t go, then honestly, I think that’s it. I’m going to try and stop.” She’s always said since that she didn’t believe I was capable of stopping, that I would’ve kept going. I can’t say for sure whether it’s true or not because that was the one that was picked up. For me, it was the best I could possibly do at the time. I’d like to think I was better now. Almost twenty years later, it’d be a shame if I hadn’t learned a few things. It was something I felt almost compelled to do. I like telling stories. I always have. The pleasure of it is something I’m thankful for every day.

Zibby: Where do you like to write? Do you have a special place you go? Do you like to go to coffee shops? Where do you like to write?

Conn: I’ve never managed the coffee shop laptop thing. I always regret that because I like the idea of it. It always looked really cool. Sadly, mine is always with a PC up in the attic tapping away. It is a fairly isolated business. At the same time, my mind is full of pictures and exciting stories. I’m delighted reading my own scenes back to myself. It doesn’t feel too isolated at the time. It is nice to get out of the house occasionally, I will say. It’s one of the things that publishers arrange, to go and speak at literary festivals and things like that. It’s always a pleasure because usually I’m just on my own. It’s very nice. I usually work during the day, get up fairly early and work during the day until the kids come home from school. Then I irritate them.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Conn: I know it sounds ridiculous. My advice always seems a little too basic to actually give to anybody. I would say to plan your work. One of the big differences between the book that was successful, my first and previous efforts, was that I wrote the previous efforts in a frenzy of creativity without much planning. They tended to ramble a bit. It was not unheard of for me to get to the end of the book and think, oh, blast, what happened to John? Then I realized I’d forgotten John. I would try and put John back in. I’d add, “John cleared his throat. John walked quickly out of the room,” all the way through the book. He’d started as an important character. Then I’d just forgotten him. That sort of thing where I actually planned the book — with the Julius Caesar one, the first book, I knew the last line before I wrote the first line. That made a huge difference. I had worried that it would steal the creativity away from me, that it wouldn’t feel quite so wild and chaotic and wonderful. Actually, it didn’t at all. It just reined it in a little. It was still creative. It still felt wonderful, but it wasn’t quite so rambling. That matters.

Zibby: Can I ask what you’re working on now?

Conn: I’m in ancient Greece at the moment, not literally. Although, I’m not long back from Athens and Sparta where I was wandering around the ruins to try and get a sense of the geography and the sights and sounds and things like that. It’s going to be Pericles and his father and going into the Peloponnesian War. It’s an incredibly rich part of history, and the Persian invasion with Xerxes and Darius and all sorts of good stuff. I have to say, history is full of good stories. You don’t have to look too far. This is a particularly rich bit.

Zibby: Wow. Thank you so much for sharing all of your thoughts with me today and with the listeners of “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I really, really appreciate it.

Conn: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Conn: Cheers. Bye.