By: Alex Rutherford
Publisher: Hachette India
Husband-wife duo—authors Diana and Michael Preston—working under the pseudonym Alex Rutherford, has the entire Empire of the Moghul series to its credit. Their recent book, Fortune’s Soldier, talks about Lord Robert Clive and his tryst with India. In a freewheeling chat with Medha Dutta Yadav, they reveal how working as a team has its own advantages.
How did you get into historical fiction and why did you choose a pseudonym?
A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time, our non-fiction book about the Taj Mahal, got us into writing historical fiction. The Moghul Chronicles, which we read during our research, bowled us over with their astonishing stories and personalities.
In particular we were struck by the warrior code of ‘throne or coffin’ the Moghuls brought with them from Central Asia and how in generation after generation a cycle of violence and lust for power played out. Originally we planned to fictionalise the Moghul story in a trilogy but quickly realised that the stories were so vivid and rich that each of the first six Moghul emperors merited his own novel. That’s why the Empire of the Moghul series became a sextet. We chose our pseudonym to avoid confusion with our non-fiction work. It was also fun and quite liberating to invent a new writing persona.
What are the advantages of working as a team?
It’s good because, like in a writers’ room for film or TV, it allows us to bounce around and develop ideas and storylines that we might not have thought of alone and of course it relieves what can be a writer’s lonely life.
Have your travels helped your writing?
We love travelling and are currently aboard a ship sailing from Indonesia to the Philippines and reckon we’ve visited over 150 countries. Travel alters perceptions, challenges preconceptions and sparks curiosity. India was one of the first countries we visited and we return often. It was the people we met, the stories we heard, the things we learned, that inspired us to write about the Taj Mahal, the Moghuls and most recently Fortune’s Soldier about Robert Clive.
Tell us about Fortune’s Soldier.
The book is set in India in the mid-18th century. The central figures are Englishman Robert Clive and a young Scot, Nicholas Ballantyne, who arrive in Calcutta to seek their fortunes. Almost immediately war between Britain and France in Europe ignites conflict between the two in India where the British and French East India companies, craving profit and power, are rivals. The once great Moghul emperors are in decline.
The viceroys through whom they once ruled an empire of 100 million are no longer loyal lieutenants but increasingly independent princes straining against their remaining ties to their Moghul overlords and incautiously eager to find allies among the unscrupulous Europeans. Fortune’s Soldier relates how in this dangerous, volatile world Clive and Ballantyne face temptations and choices that ultimately threaten their friendship. It concludes with the battle of Plassey.
Was Clive challenging to write about?
Clive was certainly controversial in his lifetime, in both India and Britain, as well as today. The challenge of bringing such a figure to life attracted us to writing Fortune’s Soldier. We tried to show Clive’s character in all its facets—strengths such as his courage and ingenuity but also fatal weaknesses such as overweening ambition, greed and a depressive argumentative nature that would ultimately damn him, particularly after the period of our book. The historian John Dalberg-Acton was right to say “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Is historical fiction a better way of learning history?
Historical fiction, if well-researched, is a great way of learning about history as it can more easily capture your imagination and draw you into stories of the past. We always include historical notes with our novels telling readers which original sources we’ve used and the main facts behind the books so readers can explore further.
What are you working on next?
We are looking forward to working with Star TV on the major dramatisation of our Empire of the Moghul series and we’re thinking about the possibility of sequels to Fortune’s Soldier. We’re also beginning work on a non-fiction book about Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle.
One irritating habit you hate in each other.
Michael: While discussing work Diana is “hard of hearing”
Diana: When Michael “mumbles”
A favourite fictional
Hamlet, because you feel the uncertainties, conflicting emotions and desires tormenting him as he confronts the dilemmas of an extraordinary situation
One guilty-pleasure read.
Diana: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary
Michael: George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones
One author who overwhelms you.
Leo Tolstoy, John le Carre,
Favourite word, and why?
‘Yes’, because it opens doors and creates opportunities