Thursday, November 29, 2007

Interview with Steven Saylor, author of ROMA

This year, I reviewed Steven Saylor's novel ROMA (St. Martin’s Press. 2007. 576 pgs. $25.95. hc. 0-312-32831-1 .) for the Historical Novels Review. At the time my partner and I were devouring HBO's series, Rome, via netflix and I wanted to learn more about the city that I'd visited several times but actually know relatively little about, before the Renaissance. I'd read the first two books in Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa mystery series, featuring Gordianus the Finder, and was excited about his new venture.

ROMA is an epic novel by every definition, yet also surprisingly intimate, driven by beautifully drawn characters. In my review, I wrote: Steven Saylor, the award-winning mystery writer of the Roma Sub Rosa series, undertakes the multigenerational historical saga in his latest novel ROMA . . . Saylor frames his compelling, fast-moving narrative in elegant prose, using the device of a fictional family whose fates are closely interwoven with the vicissitudes and fortunes of the city. The cast is large and varied, beginning with a salt trader’s daughter in 1000 BC who receives a mysterious gold talisman that will become a family heirloom. Through the eyes of her descendants, the Potitius family, we witness the city’s founding by Romulus and Remus, the struggles and intrigues of plebeians and patricians, Hannibal’s invasion, a mass murderer’s scheme to wipe out a competing dynasty, a vestal virgin’s sacrifice, and the tragic attempt of two sibling politicians to revolutionize Roman society . . . Readers will find themselves in awe of Saylor’s command of his sprawling storyline, his penchant for detail, as well as his evident passion for Rome herself, a city whose complex grandeur and enigmatic allure continue to entice our collective imagination.

Steven Saylor is the bestselling author of twelve novels set in ancient Rome and two contemporary thrillers. He's considered an expert on the ancient world and has been invited to speak on The History Channel and at several international conferences. ROMA is currently being translated into eleven languages and counting; it hit the New York Times bestseller list and is a bestseller in Budapest, where Steven toured this summer. He currently divides his time between Austin, Texas, and Northern California. To learn more about him, as well as fascinating details about his research and commentary on ancient history in books and film, please visit Steven:

Please join me in welcoming Steven Saylor:

1. Congratulations on the publication of ROMA. It's a honor to have you with us. ROMA is a marvelous, epic novel that traces a thousand years in Rome's history. What inspired you to take on such an ambitious project after having found bestselling success with your Roma Sub Rosa mystery series?

I give credit to my publisher in England, Nick Robinson of Constable. A few years ago, when I was in London on book tour, Nick had me to his flat for a serious chat and proposed I write a “big book” outside my crime series. The idea that immediately popped into my head was a Michener/Rutherfurd-style centuries-long epic about Rome, something no one had yet done. Then I talked about the idea with my US editor, Keith Kahla at St. Martin’s Press. Not wanting to bite off too much, we honed the idea down to the first 1000 years of the city, stopping at 1 B.C. From simple conversations come big books.

2. Rome's early origins are steeped in myth. How challenging was it to research the facts behind the myth and create a realistic interpretation of the city's founding? What surprising facts did you discover, if any, about Rome and its beginnings?

The 19th-century historians who laid the groundwork for our understanding of earliest Rome were highly skeptical of the legendary accounts of Romulus and Remus, but more recent archaeological finds in Rome have caused some current historians to revise their thinking. It’s a very fertile, exciting time right now in early Roman studies. In ROMA I try to strike a certain balance between historical “fact” and the more legendary accounts, which have their own validity (and which the later Romans themselves believed). At the outset of the novel I quote an epigram from the historian Alexandre Grandazzi: “Legend is historical, just as history is legendary.” That was a guiding precept for the book.One of the surprises was the sophistication and cynicism of the Roman historians themselves. Livy, our principal source, doesn’t buy the idea that Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf. He notes that the word lupa can also mean prostitute, so he speculates that such a woman raised the twins, and later legend turned her literally into a she-wolf.

3. ROMA traces two fictional families in particular through the years, offering a diverse perspective of Roman society linked by the past and a gold talisman. Among the memorable cast of characters are a mass murderer and a vestal virgin. How did you research the creation of your fictional characters? In particular, did you find portraying a female point of view easy or challenging? Can you tell us about any methods you employ to give your characters authenticity?

The two families, the Pinarii and the Potitii, are historical. In fact, they’re the earliest families we know about in Roman history; both are mentioned in the first pages of Livy.For historical characters, like Coriolanus or Julius Caesar or Cleopatra, we have various sources to draw on, as well as traditions created by earlier writers of fiction, like Shakespeare, who created unforgettable portraits of all three of those people. For my entirely fictional characters, like the Vestal Pinaria in the chapter about the Gallic invasion of Rome, I took inspiration from a comment made by Betty Radice. Writing about Livy’s powers as a novelist as well as historian, Radice notes that Livy “never falls into the error of trying to create atmosphere by lifting pages from Baedeker—George Eliot and Lord Lytton earnestly did their best with Florence and Pompeii, but the dead stones never speak. Instead, he keeps descriptions to a minimum and recreates the spirit of Rome by entering into the feelings of the people of the time....he can make us feel what it is like to suffer a long siege, to lie on a battlefield wounded and dying, to be trapped in a panic-stricken crowd....” That’s the key to creating both atmosphere and character in a historical novel — not to give endless details or descriptions, but to make the reader feel what it’s like to be alive in a certain time and place. So I don’t spend a lot of time describing Pinaria or her family history. Instead I try to imagine what this pious young woman must have felt, trapped atop the Capitoline Hill while the Gauls ransacked her beloved city below. Her religious faith is shattered by the experience; her ideas about the world and about herself are radically altered. What sort of choices would she face? (Here’s a hint: Pinaria remains a Vestal, but not a virgin!)The historical sources are often very scant when it comes to women. Even the most famous woman in history, Cleopatra, doesn’t get her own biography from Plutarch; we have to search for her in the biographies of the men, like Antony and Caesar! So there is a very special challenge to recreating the thought-world of women in the ancient world.

4. Many people are fascinated by ancient Rome but often see it as a Hollywood-inspired version of depraved emperors and blood-thirsty gladiators; your book offers a refreshing perspective that focuses on the equally tumultuous events of the republic, which led up to the imperial era. How did you go about recreating this lesser-known period of time for your reader? Were there any particular choices you made concerning the events you would write about?

Curiously, the popular culture of an earlier century focused not on the depravity of the Roman empire, but on the perceived virtues of the Republic that gave birth to it. Victorian schoolboys knew all about the legends of Romulus and Remus, and the treachery of Coriolanus, and the struggle of the patricians and plebeians, while Americans of our time seem to be much more fascinated by the imperial pomp and perversity of Nero and Caligula. That must say something about us, don’t you think?One of my goal in ROMA was to reclaim that knowledge of the first centuries of Rome, which is indeed full of incredibly dramatic stories and towering figures of virtue and vice. There’s such a wealth of great material that the challenge was to decide which of those tales were most significant and to home in on them, creating the context with as few brushstrokes as possible and then focusing on the people involved, feeling what they must have felt as they fell in love or got the best of their enemies or faced death at the hands of an angry mob.

5. ROMA combines personal and political elements into a multi- generational saga that features intense passion, hatred, spirituality, sexuality, and harrowing violence. This is literally a book with something for everyone. Were you at all concerned while writing that your story might not appeal to both women and men readers? If so, did you make any extra efforts to ensure that the novel reached its intended audience?

I consciously tried to split the perspective as evenly as I could between the male and female characters. I couldn’t quite pull that off, especially in the later chapters, because the historical record is so thoroughly dominated by men. But wherever I was given a memorable woman in the sources, I seized on the opportunity to explore her place in the world and give her a voice. For example, along with the radical firebrands Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, two brothers who changed Rome forever, history gives us a vivid portrait of their mother, Cornelia. So of course Cornelia plays a prominent role in the book.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today's reader, or how do the events you evoke resonate in today's world?

People seem irresistibly drawn to wonder about parallels between ancient Rome and modern America. And indeed, when you delve into the politics of the ancients, you do find startling similarities. For example, whenever the authority of the ruling class is challenged by those less well-off, the conservative elites start preaching patriotism and religious piety and whip up xenophobic hysteria; over and over we hear them say, “Do as your betters tell you and Rome will be safe; disobey us and your treason and sinfulness will let outsiders destroy Rome.” At the other end of the political spectrum, rabble-rousers — whether driven by idealism or personal ambition — exploit the resentment of the struggling classes. Both sides use lawsuits and sexual scandals to drag down their opponents. Doesn’t all this sound familiar?

7. Please tell us about your next project.

My next novel will be a return to the Roma Sub Rosa crime series with Gordianus the Finder. It’s called THE TRIUMPH OF CAESAR and comes out in May 2008.Right now I’m hard at work on the follow-up to ROMA, which will be another epic novel spanning the next 500 years of Roman history, from the beginning of the empire under Augustus to the barbarian invasions and the very last emperor in Rome, an unfortunate young man named Romulus Augustus. I’m doing the research right now. It’s going to be quite a challenge, getting inside the heads of people as varied as Hadrian, who deified his young male lover, Antinous, and Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion. Again, the sources are not generous in giving us material about the women, and they tend to vilify the ones who stand out, like Nero’s mother, Agrippina. But uncovering their stories is one of my jobs.

Thank you, Steven. I am looking forward to your latest book, as are your many fans!


Gabriele C. said...

Ohh, let me see how much Christmas book money I've still left. :) And how comes that I have missed that book so far? I'm also looking forward to the sequel, particularly since it deals with times I write about as well.

Just don't believe everything that old gossip Suetonius wrote. *grin*

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