In India for the launch of the second book in the Empire of the Moghul series, author Diana Preston - one half of Alex Rutherford- holds forth on psuedonyms, India and the perils of research trips.

When the first book in the Empire of the Moghul series, Raiders from the North, came out, the first thing I did was to check the back flap for more information on the author. Nothing except a vague phrase “Alex Rutherford lives in London”. A Google search revealed that Alex Rutherford was actually the husband-wife team of Michael and Diana Preston and that Empire of the Moghul series was their first stab at historical fiction.

Other books as co-authors include A Pirate of Exquisite Mind (on the English buccaneer, sea captain, author and scientific observer William Dampier), Cleopatra and Antony and two books on the Taj Mahal (A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time and Taj Mahal).

Diana also has The Road to Culloden Moor (on Bonnie Prince Charlie); A First Rate Tragedy (on Robert Scott and his ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic), The Boxer Rebellion (on China's war against foreigners in 1900) and Lusitania (on the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania), and Before the Fallout (from Marie Curie to the bombing of Hiroshima) to her credit.

In Chennai for the launch of Brothers at War, the second book in the series, Diana Preston settled down for a chat on writing, research trips and their attendant dangers with a constant injunction to “tell me if I'm talking too much”. Excerpts:

Pseudonyms and Alex Rutherford

We've done only serious non-fiction and this is our first attempt at historical fiction. So we decided to create a new persona to make a distinction between our earlier writing and this series. Besides, we didn't anticipate a quintet; we were thinking in terms of a trilogy…

As for Alex Rutherford, the Rutherford came from the Nobel Laureate Ernest Rutherford; we'd been working onBefore the Fallout and we liked the name. So we borrowed it. (laughs) Since we are a husband-wife team, we wanted a first name that would fit both, so we plumped for Alex; and Alex Rutherford seemed to gel. It was fun to create a new identity.

Interest in history and India

Always been interested; after all history tells you why we are where we are. I did modern history at Oxford University while Mike studied ancient languages like Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval English and French. We have different approaches to the subject – I'm analytical while Mike is interested in the human angle – but we're interested in the same things. We've been coming to India for quite some time now. It was the first place we visited after we got married. And of course we went to the Taj and we got interested in why the Taj gets under your skin. We thought of telling the story of the Taj and while researching for that we got interested in the period. We were also working on a book on Dampier, the English pirate, and read his notes of 17th century India.

And in the process we got drawn to Central Asia and Persia and our research led us to the Baburnama, which fired our imagination. It's rather Shakespearean, isn't it: revenge tragedy, love, passion, war… So we decided to tell their stories. But there were gaps in the accounts so we decided to fictionalise it.

Perils of research

Going to the Antarctic to research A First Rate Tragedy was Mike's idea. We've always been fascinated by Scott and his expedition. We were on this tiny Russian ship when a sudden storm blew up, giving us a first hand account of how dangerous and capricious Nature could be. The life rafts blew off, the wind was blowing at 150km, ice was forming all over, we couldn't open the door to our cabin… I could almost see that little notice in The Times about being lost at sea…

Another time in Panama, for A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, we had to avoid the FARC guerrillas, the deadly fer de lance snake and spiders — (as an aside) and I just can't cope with spiders — to cross the Isthmus. Just like Dampier, we had to take the help of the Indian tribes to get to safety.

In comparison, we've not faced anything more dramatic than a cancelled flight or train in India. The Archaeological Survey of India was very helpful. People there gave us terrific insights into what we hadn't known before, sent faxes and messages to our various questions, told us about the excavations at Burhanpur (where Mumtaz Mahal died)… The other major source was the Bodleian Indian Institute Library at Oxford. Since we live in London, much of our paper work was done there.

Reactions to the series

It's been amazing, we're very delighted. We got a 12-page letter from a professor in Mumbai on what he thought of the first book; giving us more information on some points… the general reaction has been to empathise with the characters. “They seem real,” has been our greatest accolade.

Writerly inspirations

(Thoughtfully) Hard to say, I wouldn't say there's any one influence. I am a novel reader; Mike's more into history, especially military history… he writes the battle scenes. I used to love Jean Plaidy and her historical novels. Both of us like Mary Renault but no… no specific influences.

What's next?

Well… this will keep us going for another 3-4 years; we're still deep in this. We'd like to think that Alex will live on after this series. Of course, our series stops with Shah Jahan, but we've been reading up on what comes after so that may suggest some ideas… We're still not at the stage of identifying what comes next.

Rushdie and the Baburnama

Sometimes historical research leads to unexpected difficulties and dilemmas. Several years ago we were about to cross the border from Armenia into Iran where we wanted to explore the artistic and culture influences of Persia on the Moghul empire. Several miles from the border we suddenly realised that in our suitcase was a translation of the Baburnama endorsed on the front and back covers and on the spine by Salman Rushdie and also containing a foreword by him. Fearing the book would be confiscated or we might be turned back, we felt we had no option but to rip out all such references. It's the first time we’ve ever had to vandalise a book and it hurt to do it especially as we’d grown very fond of our copy of the Baburnama and the foreword was insightful.

Our battered and torn copy of the Baburnama is still with us and brings back many memories. We’d have been very sorry to lose it not least because it is such a good read. Not only is it the first true biography in Islamic literature but Babur wrote - for the most part at least - with disarming frankness and honesty. For example he admitted that being forced from his realm 'wandering from mountain to mountain with no home and no house had nothing to commend it'. Similarly on losing Samarkand he wrote about how difficult this was for him and that he 'could not help crying a lot'. Babur’s no-nonsense language brings home what life was like for a nomadic, marauding prince who believed his destiny was to found an empire but was often reduced to the life of a cattle and sheep raider. His words bring home his unwavering determination and self-belief in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles and dangers. In one of our favourite passages he describes how his supporters were reduced to  a mere  two or three hundred men armed only with clubs and clad in rough boots and shepherds' garb but still writes optimistically of his 'great expectations' of future glory.


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012

More In: Books | Arts | Magazine | Features