Stella Gemmell: Trojan effort

Stella Gemmell: Trojan effort

Stella Gemmell had been helping her novelist husband David with research for his Troy-set historical trilogy, but never expected to end up completing it. But when David died unexpectedly last summer, with half of Fall of Kings, the third novel, left unwritten, she knew there was no one else she could trust to do the job.

"I hadn't written before, and sometimes I think I was absolutely mad or hugely arrogant to think I could actually finish the book, she says. "But I felt there was no choice. It had to be finished, and I didn't want Transworld to bring in someone else—I was the obvious candidate."

The first time she sat down to write was just four days after David died, before the funeral had taken place. "I got up at three in the morning, went into the office, sat down and wrote the epilogue. Doing that was a bit cathartic. It was also psychologically a good idea because it meant that I'd written the end of the book, so all I had to do was fill in the bit in the middle."

But it took her a while to make the suggestion of finishing the book herself to Selina Walker, David's editor at Transworld--who had had the same idea, but didn't want to push her into anything she wasn't ready for. "It was kind of a stand-off for a few weeks," says Gemmell. "I was a bit nervous about putting the suggestion to them, and nothing was said to me, so I dithered a lot for a while."

A year later, Gemmell is giving the finished novel (Bantam, August) a final proof read. She's pleased with how it turned out and excited to see her name alongside David's on the front cover, but it's obviously also a wrench to give it up. "All the time I was writing it I felt I was tremendously close to Dave," she says.

Her husband had wanted to go back from fantasy to historical fiction for some time, and "in a way the siege of Troy seemed obvious. Dave's best known book is Legend, the story of a siege, so if he was going to write a historical book, writing one about a siege seemed obvious."

The trilogy starts with a semi-invented character, Helikaon (based on Aeneas), to give David the freedom to come into the Trojan War from his own point of view. "He was originally intended as almost like a narrator," says Gemmell. "But of course he took on a life of his own. When Dave, off the top of his head, decided to introduce Andromache, instantly the idea of them falling in love pushed the book in a direction that hadn't been planned. That's how many authors write—it's certainly how Dave wrote. Suddenly someone does something and the book's got its own momentum, and sweeps the writer along with it."

Some of the characters were easy for her to take on, and just flowed off the page; she cites the "in your face" personalities of Odysseus, Banokles ["such a typical Gemmell character, he's irresistible"], and "probably the best female character Dave's ever written", Andromache. Battle scenes, however, were more of a challenge. "When I started it, all I could see ahead of me was a sea of battle scenes. The action was just helter skelter right through to the end."

Although she's enjoyed Fall of Kings, Gemmell isn't sure she'll be writing more. "So much of this was fixed. I had the characters already there. Plus my motivation was huge because I had to finish the book for Dave." But she isn't ruling it out entirely. "Sitting down from page one, and having the motivation entirely out of my own head—I'm not sure. But maybe one of these mornings I'll wake up and think 'Oh, perhaps I'll start a book today.'"