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Traversing Time and Cultures in “Silk Road Centurion”, Interview with Scott Forbes Crawford

Last Updated on 2024/02/12

Blending History with Imagination.

Scott Forbes Crawford, the author behind “Silk Road Centurion,” published by Camphor Press, “The Han-Xiongnu War 133 BC – 89 AD,” and the forthcoming “The Phoenix and the Firebird,” has a varied portfolio that spans historical fiction, academic research, and contributions to magazines and anthologies. His time in Beijing and Taipei has deeply influenced his understanding of Asian histories and cultures, a theme prevalent throughout his work. Crawford, who now lives in Japan with his family, consistently merges detailed historical insights with creative storytelling in his writings. This approach allows him to present narratives that are both informative and engaging, offering readers a window into the complexities of the past. His background and experiences provide a unique lens through which he views his subject matter, adding authenticity and depth to his characters and plots. More details about Crawford’s work are available at www.scottforbescrawford.com.

What inspired you to write a story set along the ancient Silk Road?

Since I was a child, the Silk Road has enchanted me. There were carpets from Iran in my home and I remember crawling around tracing the intricate patterns and wondering what land and people had created them. I also spent part of my childhood in Japan and perhaps that experience also made the Silk Road, with its meetings of far-flung cultures, an especially appealing metaphor.

Writing a novel about the Silk Road and China also forced me to formalize my interests. I had to become serious about reading up on subjects which I’d long been curious about but about which I had only shallow knowledge and experience. There is nothing like composing a book to discover how little one actually knows about a topic!

Can you describe your research process for accurately depicting the historical and cultural aspects of the Silk Road?

I primarily used three tools in my research: reading, travel, and building upon those two, focused imagination.

Reading made up the bulk of the process. Wherever possible I drew from primary sources such as Sima Qian’s The Record of the Grand Historian, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and Herodotus. The value in books like these is of course in the specific details they offer but also to gain some sense of ancient peoples’ inner lives, how they might think and feel in ways the modern might struggle to understand. I also read widely from secondary sources; this was especially important for building up a picture of the nomadic Xiongnu people in the book – more on that later.

I traveled in northwestern China as well as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This helped inspire the writing of the book early on and also helped me to envision the setting (though two thousand years ago, parts of the landscape would likely be unrecognizable compared to today’s).

Any historical novel, though, requires tapping one’s imagination. I’d say one set in the ancient world all the more so. Not only must an author try to paint the world in as detailed, persuasive, and dramatic fashion as possible, but fill in the many gaps in knowledge, and also bring characters very different from us to life. Much is unknowable but I tried to use what I had learned to make sensible imaginative leaps so that I could portray the textures of daily life as fully as possible.

Manius, the central character, faces numerous challenges throughout the story. What inspired his creation and how did you develop his character arc?

In an abstract way he is autobiographical. Very loosely, I drew from my experiences living in China – I spent a year at a university in Beijing and later settled in Beijing for a dozen years.

I wanted my central character to be exposed to alien ways of life and respond to that, but not to be utterly transformed; instead, I hoped to show more subtle alterations in Manius’s makeup, a synthesis of beliefs. He learns the Chinese language, comes to understand some of the customs, yet remains a Roman. After ripping him away from Rome and the army, his sources of identity, what would fall away? What would strengthen? These were some of the questions I kept in mind with him.

More generally, I also wanted to give the reader surprises with his arc and avoid some of the cliches that often accompany the story of a Westerner venturing into the East.

Are you familiar with the historical figure of the Roman merchant Maes Titianus, who is said to have traveled the Silk Road over a thousand years before Marco Polo, though he did not reach China?

I am indeed familiar with Maes Titianus. When I first started writing the book, quite a few years ago, I encountered his story and decided to make a little bit of a tribute to him with my character’s name. Titianus visited a “Stone Tower” which may have been located in Tashkurgan, near the current Chinese border with Tajikistan and Afghanistan; I walked among the ruins of Tashkurgan and this was a key moment in my decision to write Silk Road Centurion. So, while Titianus didn’t inspire my novel, I thought his achievement as a Silk Road traveler coming tantalizingly close to China, and his possible link to Tashkurgan, should be honored in some way.

The characters in “Silk Road Centurion” face moral and ethical dilemmas. How did you ensure these dilemmas were effectively conveyed through your characters’ development and interactions?

That is definitely a challenge but can make for real drama: a story should not merely be a series of events but also how characters respond to those events, and how those choices might deepen or warp their relationships with one another.

I wanted to bring Manius into contact with characters very unlike who he had met before. Certainly the fact he is Roman and he interacts with Chinese makes the most extreme contrast, but there were others I wished to explore: he comes from the sprawling city of Rome, the Chinese from a tiny village; he is a professional soldier, they are farmers.

For Manius, his journey and life among the Chinese is momentous, though his appearance is also momentous for them. Whether it’s Ox, a farmer who wants nothing to do with the foreign stranger, to his young daughter Ling Yu, who is spellbound by him, to Kang, the scholarly village healer, everyone is changed for good and ill by his arrival.

What challenges did you face in balancing historical accuracy with narrative creativity?

Including rich historical elements without dragging down the storytelling can be a tricky magic trick. It’s tempting to pile detail on detail because the historical facts are so captivating, but to paraphrase a historical novelist I admire, Rosemary Sutcliff, author of The Eagle of the Ninth, one must not only ingest, but then properly digest the research before transforming it into a story.

I also had to come to a decision about depicting the complex dynamics between the Xiongnu and Chinese. As well as being belligerents, the two empires had a diplomatic relationship – for a time, the Chinese emperor and the Xiongnu chanyu (emperor) were officially “brothers.” And some border people, like many of the characters in the novel, might have had a more friendly attitude toward the Xiongnu than to their own regime.

Silk Road Centurion is told through Manius’s perspective and the Xiongnu fit into a villainous role. This gave me storytelling freedom and the means to pursue the dramatic effects I desired, though the reality was much messier, of course.

Were there any historical figures or events that particularly influenced the plot or characters of your book?

The spark of the story was the Battle of Carrhae. In 53 BC the Roman Republic went to war with the Parthian Empire, who controlled much of Mesopotamia. In command was the fabulously wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the Triumvirs ruling Rome alongside Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus. In an early draft of my novel Crassus was a character, but later he became someone Manius reflects upon.

In the 1950s a historian named Homer Dubs theorized that some Roman Carrhae survivors traveled east. A contemporary Chinese account recorded the “fish-scale” formation of some foreign soldiers in a battle occurring in the Tarim Basin, and Dubs took this as evidence. Whether or not this indicated the presence of Romans – probably it didn’t – did not matter to me as a novelist. I can stray from the known facts, though I tried not to go too far from them.

Otherwise no historical figure or event plays a direct role in the novel. I was interested in telling the story of one man’s experience in China and of the meeting of two civilizations at a very small and intimate scale, rather than something more grandiose, so fictional peasant characters fit the bill nicely.

What do you find most fascinating about the era in which “Silk Road Centurion” is set?

For one of the three civilizations portrayed, it was a period of strength and solidification. For the other two, a time of turmoil, or soon would be.

After a rocky start in the ashes of the Qin dynasty, the Han had come into its own by the time of Silk Road Centurion. Many cultural institutions crystallized under the Han: writing, literature, Confucianism, and more. All these practices, as well as the act of going to war with the Xiongnu, chased the elusive dream of a unified Chinese identity. I find that fascinating.

For Rome, it was a period of imminent transition, which usually makes for interesting history. The Battle of Carrhae played a major role in the fall of the Republic: Crassus’s death meant the balancing act of the Triumvirate was broken and Caesar’s and Pompey’s intriguing soon gave way to civil war, resulting in Caesar’s victory and (brief) autocracy, followed by more war.

For the Xiongnu, the period of the novel was a dark time. As in Rome, the pursuit of power – this time in a succession struggle for the chanyu title – touched off civil war. Yet even after numerous battlefield defeats at the hands of the Chinese, long stretches of famine, internal dissension and other stressors, the Xiongnu persisted; their powers of organization and hardiness in the face of calamity is truly impressive.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing “Silk Road Centurion”?

I have hit upon this point already so that ought to show how challenging I found this aspect of building my story: the Xiongnu. The shreds of evidence they left behind – some metalwork, clothing, and other artifacts discovered in burial sites – leave very little to work with. Even after sifting through all I could find on them I could only conjure an opaque picture. Happily, I don’t suffer from writer’s block but there were days when I was writing scenes set among the Xiongnu when the path of the narrative faded from sight. Usually some time away from the keyboard and dipping back into my historical sources helped me find my way again.

Can you share any interesting historical facts or discoveries you made during your research?

Building on the Qin model, the Han government exercised tight control over Chinese society. This pressure on the ordinary person, as well as the half-formed sense of a common identity, meant the regime feared Chinese subjects defecting to the Xiongnu. On the face of it this seems so unlikely – that the settled and nomadic society stood worlds apart – but apparently it was a live concern. To me this underscores not only the discomfort of everyday Chinese at Han policies but also the appeal of Xiongnu society. Multi-ethnic, multilingual, worshiping in a variety of faiths, the Xiongnu possessed a flexible identity which freely incorporated foreign peoples and clearly tempted some Chinese.

Steppe people like the Xiongnu are rightly admired for their toughness and warrior traditions, but I hadn’t appreciated their political sophistication until writing my book. They not only maintained cohesion across their highly diverse confederacy, despite vast distances and without the aid of writing, but also projected power in the Tarim Basin, squeezing the city-states there to aid their struggle against China.

Are there elements in the book that you feel are particularly relevant to modern readers, despite the historical setting?

Manius’s journey crosses vast physical territory, but he also sheds the ideology he was raised in and as a soldier, became an enforcer of. Perhaps his search to define himself in new ways, as an individual rather than a cog of a nation or empire, is useful to the modern reader.

More broadly, while Silk Road Centurion is an adventure novel, it also concerns the effort to find understanding and common purpose with strangers who might at the first encounter seem outlandish, even dangerous. This has been a struggle throughout human history but perhaps in our times, when one can so easily come into contact with those unlike us, it becomes even more relevant.

Are there any plans for a sequel to “Silk Road Centurion,” or will you explore different historical settings in your future works?

No plans as of yet. Though I’ve been musing about revisiting some of the characters from the novel, either to fill in gaps when they are temporarily absent from the story or to show them before or after. Readers of the book have kindly suggested concepts to me I would never have come up with!

My curiosity about the period also ran so deep that I wrote a nonfiction book about the period, particularly the centuries-long conflict with the Xiongnu. The Han-Xiongnu War 133 BC – 89 AD: The Struggle of China and a Steppe Empire Told Through its Key Figures examines the conflict through a series of biographies portraying fifteen individuals, from Modun, the Xiongnu emperor who went to war with China (and later sent a lurid letter to a Han empress dowager), to Princess Jieyou, a “peace bride” and spy. Writing that book allowed me to delve into some of the complexities of the Chinese-Xiongnu relationship which are fascinating but harder to weave into a novel.

I will explore some similar territory in a novel I am co-writing with my wife Alexis Kossiakoff. It follows a teenage girl circa AD 300 who travels the Silk Road, apprenticed to a Sogdian trader and healer, only to be swept into a conspiracy. We hope to complete the manuscript by the summer. (This will be my second book with Alexis: we wrote a historical fantasy for younger readers set in Beijing, The Phoenix and the Firebird, due to be published in June.)

I have also recently completed a manuscript for a historical novel, When the Carp Becomes a Dragon. Set against the Mongol invasion of China in the final days of the Southern Song dynasty, it is the story of two young people who must escort a treasure to safety while chased by Mongols and Chinese traitors. It was a pleasure jumping 1300 years into the future from the setting of Silk Road Centurion yet still dramatizing the clash of nomadic and settled civilizations. Even after multiple books touching on the subject, it seems I’m still enjoying my trek along the Silk Road.

Photo courtesy of Scott Forbes Crawford

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