Would you buy a book from this man?

Gary Corby, Author
I've done something I thought I'd never do: I got a decent photo of myself.

Months ago, when I signed with literary agent Janet Reid, she told me to get a proper head shot, not that it was certain it would be needed, but "just in case". It was explained to me proper meant not taken by my wife, friend, or random passing stranger.

I ignored her, of course. It would have been the ultimate in hubris to assume I was going to need that photo.

Then Janet sold the book to St Martin's. Now I needed a photo.

Luckily for me, my wife went to school with the talented Vicki Skarratt, who does promo photography for a living, usually for actors. It all looks very cool, doesn't it? The truth is, I am sitting on a child's chair in her driveway in tracksuit pants and bare feet. It is definitely not leather jacket weather. Between every shot I am staring into the distance so my eyes are properly focused, and on command waving my arms about and shaking my body, which apparently is an acting trick for looking relaxed. Vicki tells me most people are uptight about photo shoots, but I thought it was lots of fun.

This is not the real me, btw. This is an idealized Gary who did exist, for the fraction of a second required to snap the photo, but who alas is no more. He's gone, replaced by the grotty, everyday Gary everyone around me is stuck with.

Gary Fails Again!

Since we liked the whiteboard story, here are two more from the same period of my life.

I was doing consulting work at one point for the Australian Olympic Committee. Once when I was talking to their CEO, a really nice guy called Craig, I noticed he had a bicycle propped against the wall in his office. I said, "Oh, are you a bike rider?" Craig nodded and smiled.

A few days later, I discovered he had an Olympic Bronze medal for cycling.

Hint for any consultants reading this: it pays to research your client before you talk to him.

On another occassion I was doing work for a few days out at Argyle Diamond Mine, the largest source of pink diamonds in the world. It's a fascinating place, stuck in the back of beyond, in the unbelievably hot, dry Outback. The only way to get there is to fly for a couple of hours from the nearest town.

So there I was at the mine site, operations happening all about me, vast trucks the size of 3 story buildings rumbling in the distance.

Gary, walking past large piles of small black stones: "Where are the diamonds?"

Yes, I knew before I arrived that diamonds are naturally black, and I knew it afterwards too. I just didn't know it while I was looking at the diamonds.

With diamonds lying in heaps on the ground, you might be wondering what prevents people from collecting a few souvenirs.

There's a system of turnstile gates throughout the buildings on site, and between various sections. The gates whistle at random when people pass through. If you get whistled, you get strip searched. At each gate there's a room off to the side for boys, and another for girls, where security guys and gals are waiting for...errrr...customers. I noticed boxes of disposable gloves too, but that doesn't bear thinking about.

You have to sign away a few basic rights before you're allowed at the mine, such as the right not to be strip searched at random, and the Federal Police check to make sure you're not a known diamond thief, thus leaving the field open for unknown diamond thieves and wannabees.

You're waiting to find out what happened to me, aren't you? I didn't get whistled, not even once. Sorry to disappoint. But I'd like you to imagine the rising tension as you approach one of these gates, several times each day, and the relief as you walk out the other side, safe until next time.

Despite the elaborate precautions there were apparently some known thefts around the time I was there. A few months later I noticed an article in the newspaper saying some people at the mine had been charged. Have you worked out who yet? They were...some of the security guys!

Gary's dark past haunts him

Tiffany made a comment on my last post that reminded me of something from my dark past. Many years ago, back when I was at Microsoft, a couple of Senior Sales Critters were going to a meeting with the senior execs of Big Company. I was a techo type, yet capable of sounding mildly coherent to normal people, so they dragged me along.

Big Company wanted to integrate their wildly conflicted databases and do data mining and yada yada yada. No problem. Things were chugging along fine between the Sales Critters and the potential customer. Eventually someone asked a vaguely technical question. Since I am incapable of talking about technical stuff without drawing diagrams on boards, I picked up a pen and drew a diagram. Big Company's boardroom had a whiteboard that stretched from one end to the other, and that was a long way. They were interested and I talked some more and they got more excited and, before you knew it we'd covered the board with diagrams for how they might solve their problems.

But time had flown and The Enemy, also known as Oracle Corp., was waiting outside to have their turn. I took a cloth and wiped the board. Nothing came off.

I'd picked up a permanent marker.

How does an author sign an eBook?

I was thinking about these eBook reader thingies the other day - and I might add neither the Sony nor Amazon models are available in Australia...grrrr - and it occurred to me: how's an author supposed to sign their book if it's in bits and bytes inside a box?

Somehow a digital signature doesn't have the same caché.

Anyone have a good answer?

Writer's Elbow

My left elbow has turned into one large, red, scaly splotch that hurts if I put even the slightest pressure on it.

It took about 2 seconds to work out why. Whenever I re-read what I've typed, which I spend more time doing than actual typing, I lean on my elbows. It seems I lean on my left more than my right, which makes sense because my right hand holds the mouse as I scroll back and forth admiring my genius or, more often, despairing at the crud I've produced.

Clearly this is a case of Writer's Elbow, a new syndrome I've just invented.

Except I haven't. I googled my new syndrome and discovered quite a few writers with the same complaint, and all in the left elbow.

Far from being an exotic new medical curiousity, I turn out to be garden variety presentation. Such is life. At least I'm in good company; among my fellow sufferers is Nancy Kress, who I'm astonished to learn types with only one finger. I guess if it wears down to a stub she still has nine spares.

The Cleopatra Out Of Macedon Theory

What interests me most about Cleopatra's ancestry is the near certainty that she is very distantly related to Alexander the Great.

When Alexander died, there was a massive brawl between his Generals over who would rule the largest empire in human history. A very ugly brawl. Think Texas Chainsaw Massacre Meets Gladiator, only much nastier. When the dust settled, one of the few guys still standing with his intestines, limbs and head all in the expected positions was Ptolemaios.

Even in his own day the rumor was strong that Ptolemaios was the illegitimate elder half-brother of Alexander, by their father King Philip II of Macedon. Philip from a young age had been a likely lad with a propensity to bonk pretty much anything that moved, so the existence of a few extra siblings would be no surprise. Ptolemaios went a long way toward confirming this rumor by displaying during the Successor Wars the sort of strategic insight Alexander had always shown. Ptolemaios decided right away to limit himself to holding a single country, and he picked his favorite: Egypt. He kidnapped (corpse-napped?) the body of his half-brother Alexander and interred him in Alexandria, as indeed Alexander seems to have wished, and successfully held Egypt against all comers until the fighting was over.

Then he changed his name to Ptolemy and set himself up as Pharoah of Egypt. Ptolemy continued the ancient Egyptian tradition of marrying brothers to sisters to manage the succession, but he introduced a new naming scheme within the family. Almost all boys were named after him: Ptolemy. Almost all girls were named after the sister that Ptolemaios shared with Alexander the Great. Their sister, the daughter of Philip, was called...Cleopatra.

The Cleopatra was actually Cleopatra VII.

The Cleopatra Out Of Africa Theory

The news services seem to be awash at the moment with a large pile of steaming hype about Cleopatra being part African. This is on the basis of an extremely tentative identification of a headless skeleton in Ephesus, which might be her sister Arsinoe, and an even more tentative suggestion from skeletal measurements that this skeleton might be part African.

The skull to that skeleton used to exist, and was measured in the 1920s, after which they lost the skull and it's never been recovered. The measurements they're using to decide ethnicity are based on the missing skull, so nothing can be checked. Terrific. To cap it off, skeletal measurements are not exactly reliable indicators of race, so the most polite thing you can say about this claim is it's unproven.

My immediate reaction was, so what? (yawn) But it seems people care a lot, I guess because of the political correctness thing. A very modern political correctness that had no place in the ancient world. Ancient Greeks and Romans fought and squabbled with their neighbors over all sorts of geopolitical issues (think Greece/Persia) and more rarely over genuine repugnance (think Rome/Carthage...the Romans were horrified that the Carthaginians practised ritual child sacrifice), but mostly they squabbled simply because they could. You'd be hard pressed to find any examples of racism in the modern sense, as far as I'm aware (if you know of any, I'd be fascinated to hear). So whether Cleopatra or her sister was black, white, or rainbow colored stripes, it's unlikely an ancient writer would have paid much attention or cared in the least, an attitude I think we moderns would do well to emulate. It's what she did that matters.

Happy Ides of March!

Wishing all my wonderful readers a Happy Ides of March! Do please be careful today if your name is Gaius Julius.

This video of the (in)famous Wash The Blood Off My Toga was pointed out to me by Courtney:

The weird things that worry an historicals writer.

This has been driving me mad. Part of the book I'm writing takes place in Magnesia-on-the-Maeander circa 460B.C. or thereabouts. Great. Now, what did the damned place look like? A map would be useful.

For a city like Athens, the problem is too much information. I've had to sift through piles of stuff to work out what's up, what's down, and what doesn't exist yet for my date. I honestly believe if you planted me blindfolded at one corner of the Athenian agora of 461BC, I could walk to the opposite corner, and if I couldn't do it without running into something, I'd at least know what I'd just tripped over.

The problem of Magnesia is the exact opposite. The first confusion is there are two Magnesias within walking distance of each other: Magnesia-on-the-Maeander, and Magnesia-on-the-Sipylum. Some genius thought this was a great idea.

No, make that three Magnesias. When I began researching the book I discovered a reference that said my Magnesia, the one on the Maeander, had been moved wholesale by the citizens to somewhere up the road in about 399B.C., which is a bit over 60 years after my story.

I found this reference, and then I promptly lost it. But I remembered the information. When it came time to describe the city in the story, I was in a quandary. There are known, excavated ruins of a Magnesia-on-the-Maeander with a decent map, but I was pretty sure it wasn't my Magnesia, it was the later one. However without that reference I couldn't prove it. Should I describe my city as per the known ruins, and then have some sharp-eyed reader point out I'd used the wrong city? Or should I make up my own Magnesia and then have some sharp-eyed reader point out I should have used the known city? Or maybe I was imagining that I'd ever read the city had moved?

If only I could recover that accursed reference. Extensive googling couldn't find it. Even querying real professional archaeologists drew a blank.

By sheer luck I rediscovered it tonight. Dear old Diodorus Siculus says, from the Loeb Library edition: Thibron [a Spartan General with an army] ... came to Magnesia which was under the government of Tissaphernes; taking this city at the first assault, he then advanced speedily to Tralles in Ionia and began to lay siege to the city, but when he was unable to achieve any success because of its strong position, he turned back to Magnesia. And since the city was unwalled and Thibron therefore feared that at his departure Tissaphernes would get control of it, he transferred it to a neighbouring hill which men call Thorax...



Apparently there's a movie coming out this year about Hypatia.


Hypatia was the greatest female mathematician and scientist of the ancient world, and among the all-time best. She lived in the late 3rd century AD. That's about 700 years after the time of my stories, firmly within the time of the Roman Empire, so you won't be meeting her in my books, which is a pity, because Hypatia was way cool.

Her father was Theon, a strong professional mathematician in his own right, and the ancient equivalent of a professor at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. He taught his daughter everything he knew, and she took it from there, winning world-wide fame for her intelligence. Her major work was in the branch of mathematics called conic sections, and in astronomy. She taught the neo-Platonist school of philosophy. It was said that anyone within the Roman Empire could send a letter addressed to The Philosopher, and it would find its way to Hypatia.

I may need to stand corrected on this (and I'm probably risking abuse!), but I believe she was the first and so far only woman in history to be universally acknowledged as the foremost intellect of the day. She totally dominated the Library of Alexandria. She was a valued advisor to world leaders.

It seems she had some difficulty dealing with her own sexuality, or it may simply be she suffered from PMT. She's said to have turned away one suitor by throwing her menstrual rags at him and shouting there was nothing good about sex. I'd be willing to bet that little detail doesn't make it into the movie.

Here's the trailer. I've never tried embedding video before, so if it fails to appear, crashes your computer, or gives you cancer, it's probably my fault.

Everything that follows from this point is spoiler city. Or at least, I hope they're spoilers, because if they aren't, there's something seriously wrong with the movie.

If you do not want to read spoilers, STOP READING NOW!

Also be warned you don't want to read what follows before bedtime.

Okay, you've been warned.

The most important thing about Hypatia for us today is not so much her work, but the manner and meaning of her death.

Hypatia was a pagan, as indeed were all the great thinkers up to her day. This was the period we call Hellenistic, when Greek language, Greek culture, and the Greek rational process had spread across the known world, though the Greeks themselves had lost all political and military power five centuries before. The Hellenistic age is usually marked as beginning with the death of Alexander. It ends with the death of Hypatia.

It was Hypatia's misfortune to be born at the moment Christianity overtook the vastly older pagan religions. The great issue of the day was a deep discord between the Roman administrator of Egypt, a fellow called Orestes, and the local Bishop Cyril (later Saint Cyril).

Hypatia was an advisor to Orestes. No surprise there. But a rumor spread through Alexandria that Hypatia was deliberately obstructing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril, presumably because Hypatia was a pagan. The rumor is extremely unlikely; the record shows no sign of hostility on her part. She had numerous Christian students, one of whom went on to become a Bishop. Still, the rumor spread, and she was a pagan. That was enough.

Hypatia was pulled from her chariot by a group of monks and
dragged to a major church. One account says Saint Cyril led the mob. Everyone else says it was someone called Peter the Reader. Either way, every account agrees on what happened next.

Hypatia was held down as the monks cut the flesh from her body using oyster shells. She was still alive as they flayed her. She probably died during the subsequent dismembering when they tore her limbs off, again using the oyster shells, and her torso and limbs were thrown onto a fire.

When Hypatia died, Hellenism died with her. She was the very last of the great ancient thinkers. Funnily enough, other intellectuals were disinclined to call attention to themselves after the example made of her.

All that remained was the Roman Empire, which had always been supremely practical but never intellectual, and the now ascendant Christian Church. Human civilization had reached its peak of knowledge and from this point began, slowly at first, to go backwards. In fact, since she came right at the end of the time of ancient inquiry, and since she had the entire Library of Alexandria at her disposal and almost certainly read everything of importance and had the intellect to absorb every word of it, you could argue that Hypatia was the most knowledgable person ever to have lived, up until at least 1500AD.

The world would not recover the level of Hypatia's knowledge for literally 1,000 years, until the Renaissance began to rediscover what had been lost.

Pasion the Banker

In these dire economic times, I thought this might be a good moment to stop and reflect on what great guys bankers are.

Stay with me here. Of course I'm not referring to modern bankers.

Moneylenders have been around since money was invented, which was in Lydia in Asia Minor, what is now the Turkish coast, some time in the 7th century B.C.. Moneychangers likewise, because every city of the ancient world minted its own coins. But neither lenders nor changers were banks in our sense.

Then a few of these people started offering to keep money safe for others. That was getting close to being a bank, but not quite there yet.

Then bottomry began.

Some time during the early 5th century B.C., somewhere around the Aegean or Asia Minor, someone thought of lumping these different financial services into a single business. Why not lend the money you're holding on behalf of clients to others, so they can invest in new ventures, and make even more money?

That's a bank.

These early bankers were called trapezai, because they worked at tables covered with trapezoid shapes. They held knotted string along the sides of the trapezoids to do their money calculations.

The earliest Athenian bank that we know of was founded by two men called Antisthenes and Archestratus. If their business existed today, it would be called something like the Antisthenes and Archestratus Savings and Loan Company. Because that's what they did. You could save your money with them, and you could borrow from them (if your collateral was good, like for example, your ship). They made profits by investing the savings lodged with them, often insuring cargo on trading ships.

The business grew, and Antisthenes and Archestratus decided they needed an assistant. So they did what any Athenian citizen would do, they wandered down to the slave market to see what was on the auction block. They bought a guy called Pasion. No one knows where Pasion came from; he may have been a captured enemy soldier. Nor do we know if Antisthenes and Archestratus were just unbelievably lucky, or whether they knew they were making one of the best HR hiring decisions in human history. But they were, because Pasion turned out to be a financial genius.

Pasion took to banking like a leech to blood. It wasn't long before Antisthenes and Archestratus were happy to sit back and let their slave run things. Pasion had just become the world's first banking CEO.

When Antisthenes and Archestratus retired in about 400BC, they freed Pasion and sold the business to him. Pasion amassed a huge fortune. With buckets of money to invest, he bought up shield factories (i.e. armaments) thus turning himself into a one man military-industrial complex. It was a good investment; Athens always had a war on somewhere.

But he wasn't niggardly with his wealth or his time. He made massive donations to the state, funding five triremes (the average millionaire struggled to supply one) and in times of need donated military equipment gratis, at one point donating 1,000 shields.

In litigious Athens, Pasion had an enviable reputation for integrity and seems to have been almost universally liked. Anyone could go to him for financial advice and he gave his time freely to help the poor. He was so loved that the citizens of Athens granted him citizenship by acclamation, and he was enrolled as a citizen in the deme of Archarnae. A man who had once stood naked on the auction block had risen to become one of the most respected and liked citizens of Athens. And he'd done it by being a banker.

I've made good use of this little piece of history. The Antisthenes and Archestratus Savings and Loan Company makes an appearance in my first novel. Perhaps more interestingly, last year I won the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Prize in the historical category for a short story called The Pasion Contract. The short story is about the Pasion of this blog post, and a contract taken out to kill him.


Hebe (Robin) is looking for alternatives to Herodotus for her Greek classics group. Anyone who blogs about coffee foam and quotes Socrates has to be a nice person, so I gave the question some thought.

I'm guessing the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War are all too obvious. The group probably did them to death before turning to Herodotus. So assuming they're ruled out, what's next?


Please read Aristophanes. He's hilarious.

Aristophanes, son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, is one of the greatest comic playwrights of all time. My personal top three list is Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Spike Milligan. In fact, Aristophanes's work and the Goon Shows bear a striking resemblance to each other.

Most of what he wrote is still very accessible today, though it's true that the more history you know, the more jokes you get. The two best of his plays for a modern reader are Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens go on a sex strike until the men make peace with the Spartans, and The Clouds, which made fun of the philosophers via the Thinking Shop, and starred Socrates as a character. When The Clouds was first played, Socrates stood up amongst the audience so everyone could see who the play was about.

Here's a passage from The Clouds in which a student is teaching Strepsiades about maps.

Student (pointing to a map): Over here we have a map of the entire world. You see there? That's Athens.

Strepsiades: Thats Athens? It can't be, I don't see even a single law court open.

Student: It's quite true, it really is Athens.

Strepsiades: Then where are my neighbors of Kikynna? [a suburb of Athens - Gary]

Student: Here they are, and you see this island squeezed along the coast? That's Euboia.

Strepsiades: Oh I know that! It was Pericles who squeezed it dry. But where's Sparta?

Student: Sparta? Right here.

Strepsiades: THAT'S MUCH TOO CLOSE! Move it further away.

Think about how much you just learnt about Athenian life from those few jokes. You can actually learn more about real life in Classical Greece from a single Aristophanes play than all the tragedies put together.

Despite the lampooning, Socrates and Aristophanes were friends. In the Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes and Socrates hanging out together. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is all these guys who we revere today as world-class geniuses all knew each other. Can you imagine being at a party with this bunch?

The Strange Case of the Missing Gary

In case you haven't heard the screams of joy emanating from my house, be it known the following message is up on Publishers Marketplace:

Gary Corby's THE EPHIALTES AFFAIR, set in Periclean Athens, to Keith Kahla at Minotaur, with Kathleen Conn editing, in a nice deal, for publication in Fall 2010, by Janet Reid at FinePrint Literary Management (world).

Which means, come September/October next year, you'll be able to read the book!

Alright, it's not exactly like that on Publishers Marketplace. I colored in the names and the pub date. So far I have resisted printing it off, covering it in fairy sparkles, and hugging it in bed at night.

This almost didn't happen.

When I started querying agents in the US, I did my research like a good boy, and came across someone called Janet Reid.

Here was a successful, established literary agent in New York who loved mysteries. She sounded just wonderful for me, so clearly this was never going to fly. I didn't have that kind of luck.

To start with, a manuscript assessor I'd talked to had told me the chances of getting anywhere in the highly competitive New York market was indistinguishable from zero. Secondly, all the advice I'd read said new writers should look for new agents, still trying to build up their lists. So, a great agent with an established list in NY? Not a hope in Hades. Obviously. Nevertheless, if you don't try you certainly won't succeed, so Janet went on my query list. Out went the queries.

Then it occurred to me to move my web site (the one you're reading) from Sydney to the US, to save most of my readers that extra half second of pageload time. It was hardly important, but it was simple to do. I thought.

The web host tranferred the site, turning back on an old security certificate which I had turned off months before. I was now the only person on the planet who could see my web site, because I was the only one with that old certificate loaded. But I didn't know that, because the only computer I used to check the web site was my own. Because I am an idiot.

My email accounts hadn't been transferred with the server. But I didn't know that because I didn't check email after the transfer. Because I am an idiot.

Life went on. I hadn't received any email, but that was no surprise because I was only using that address for writing, I'd only sent the queries a week ago, and no agent was going to respond within a week.

Except Janet.

A week after sending the queries, close to midnight, my wife Helen was cleaning out an old online email account which we use as a spam catcher. Everyone has an account like that; the one you enter for web sites and business where you don't trust them not to spam you, or sell your address. Helen had her finger poised over the delete button to erase hundreds of spam, when she said, "There's an email here that looks real."

It was real. This is what it said:

you queried me.
I wanted to read more!
Your email bounced, your website is closed.

I resorted to posting on my blog and some folks found this email attached to your old website.

Get in touch if you'd still like me to read the pages!

Janet Reid

This was weird. I checked my web site, and it was up just fine. My wife checked it from her PC. It was inaccessible. Uh oh. After some fiddling I work out what's gone wrong.

But that's only the web site. Email should still be working, shouldn't it? I check the email accounts. They're kaput. Worse than kaput, they're non-existent.

I found Janet's blog, and there I read:

Gary Corby, where are you?

Your email bounced back.
Your website is gone.

I want to read pages.
You're making it hard to do so!

Last chance!

The time required to move from normal body state to near heart attack is approximately two seconds, as I learned at that moment. Eight people have been trying to track me down. The comment from Travis Erwin is spot on: "Gary, I hope you are reading and realize this is definitely going above and beyond." Yep. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies found the old email account Janet had used to send me that email.

By 2 am I'd fixed the web site and had the email accounts back and working, and tested. Then I sent Janet a groveling apology. Then I hopped on to Janet's blog and thanked all those nice people looking for me, and there was much rejoicing and mirth at my discovery.

This is certainly a novel and interesting way to call attention to yourself. It's worked out brilliantly for me, but if you're thinking of doing the same thing to differentiate yourself, I wouldn't recommend it.