Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Interview with Russell Whitfield, author of GLADIATRIX

I recently had the good fortune to read GLADIATRIX, a girl-kicks-some-serious-butt debut novel set in the time of the Roman Empire and featuring a shipwrecked Spartan priestess who is sold into slavery and rises to fame as a gladiator. While the male versions of these fearsome warriors have been featured generously in film and books, the women are not nearly as well known. In fact, I had no idea that like their male counterparts, women fighters fought each other and could eventually earn their freedom if they proved brave and wily enough to survive the arena. Russell's novel was therefore an eye-opener for me, as well as an exciting journey into the violent, compelling, sexy, often lethal but never dull world of ancient gladiators.
Please join me in welcoming Russell Whitfield!

1.Congratulations on the publication of GLADIATRIX. It's an honor to have you with us. Set in the outlying areas under the Roman Empire, GLADIATRIX offers us a compelling look at women gladiators, following the story of Lysandra, a Spartan priestess who is sold into slavery and finds fame in the arena. What inspired you to write about the women fighters of this era?

Thanks very much – I’m sure it’s a bit of dubious honour, though! Inspirations for “Gladiatrix” . . . well, all sorts of things really. Like many people, I had been through the process of “writing a book” about thirty times: I’d start one, get a way through, have a better idea for something else, start that, have a better idea for something…repeat. Anyway, I dropped the idea of writing for a while, but anyone who writes will tell you it’s like a compulsion – you really can’t stop yourself. So I thought that the best thing to do would be to focus on things that I had always liked, not just the phases that I was going through (this week, I’m writing a fantasy novel, next week a vampire one and so forth).

Ancient history has been a constant companion for me my whole life – ever since I saw the movie “The Three Hundred Spartans” on the telly as a small boy. I just loved that film – I can recall crying when they all got killed at the end because I was so sure that someone would turn up and save them. Anyway, this sparked a genuine interest in Classical cultures that has stayed with me all my life. I knew I had a good grounding there, and really I just wanted to write something that I myself would love to read.

Then I saw the Channel Four documentary “Gladiator Girl”, and that had a small mention of the Halicarnassus stele that featured “Amazon and Achillia” the two female gladiators who were freed. Other than that, we don’t know anything about them, so I thought that there was enough largesses there to make a great story. It was serendipity, I guess, watching that programme just when I’d decided to give writing another crack. So, I just thought: What do I like? Well, Spartans, gladiators, tough warrior women…there has to be a book in that!

2. GLADIATRIX offers a fascinating look at the lives these women led both in and out of the arena, including the different caste structures and the fact that the fighters could eventually earn their freedom through their prowess in the arena. While violence and death overshadowed their existence, your novel also shows us their intimate relationships as well as the fame they could achieve in the higher echelons of society. What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about the gladiators of ancient Rome and how they were perceived in their world? Is there a famous woman gladiator who inspired your creation of your lead character?

The two women in the story, Sorina and Lysandra, are based on “Amazon and Achillia” respectively – that we no virtually nothing about the gladiatrices on the Halicarnassus stele save for their “stage names” was a great help to me as a writer.
Gladiators were an oddity in Roman society – at once they were revered as heroes but also despised for their low social status…people admired them and looked down on them at the same time. I guess we can draw an analogy with football – some footballers are held up as icons and heroes whilst at the same time they’re mocked (often unfairly) for their supposed lack of intelligence, class or taste. It must have been the same for gladiators.

The Emperor Nero was the first person we know of that had women fight in the arena, but under Domitian, the female combats took on some importance – we know that they fought “by torchlight” which meant that they were the main event of the evening. To keep going with the with the football analogy, the gladiatrices could be likened to the female footballers of today. Whilst the women’s game has its core of fans, it’s never going to be the global phenomenon of the male competition.

3. A key plotline within the novel is Lysandra’s struggle with her Spartan education and her innate sense of superiority to the other women, which eventually plunges her into a doomed love affair and forces her to question everything she believes in. Because your book is centered on a woman and often told through her eyes, how did you slip into Lysandra’s persona? Of the other characters in the book, which ones did you most enjoy creating and which presented the greatest challenge?
Maybe I’m just in touch with my feminine side! It’s actually a very difficult question to answer, and I’m not sure I even know “how” it works. I didn’t really put myself in the place of “a woman” but rather in Lysandra’s place. Obviously, I know her character well, so I tried to express how she would react to a situation that presented itself. The story also has women taking on the traditionally male role of gladiatorial fighting, so that made the job a bit easier I guess. And I was lucky enough to have two female test readers as well so I knew I could rely on them to point out anything that was glaringly “bloke.”

Lysandra was great fun to write – she was just so conceited and convinced of her innate superiority it was a blast. Almost of all of the feedback I’ve had and the reviews I’ve read mention her arrogance, which is really great to hear. It seems that her superciliousness almost endeared her to some as it was so heartfelt. It was also risky to make a lead character potentially unlikable, but this was the Lysandra I had in my head, and I couldn’t write her any other way. I think she has her redeemable qualities too – she’s not a total ego-maniac, but it is one of her major flaws, as is her naivety. The combination of arrogance and gullibility works well, I think, and certainly made it fun to write scenes where she’s congratulating herself on how clever she is without having a clue that she’s been outmaneuvered by the likes of Frontinus and Balbus.

4. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?

Well, after my own (largely useless) proofreading, I had the manuscript looked over by an agency called the Jacqui Bennett Writers Bureau who were reasonable and professional. Once done, I just started sending it out to agents and publishers. The very first company I approached asked me for the full manuscript, then asked me for a re-write and then decided that it actually wasn’t for them after all. Then I just kept going – I think I must have tried about 40 odd in the end, and I had just about given up. I decided that there was evidently some fatal flaw with “Gladiatrix” that I couldn’t see – there must be, as I wasn’t getting picked up, so I decided to write something else. The day day I made that decision, I got the email from my publisher Myrmidon. It was a Twilight Zone moment.

The one thing that the “How to write a novel” books can’t give you is the gigantic slice of luck you need for your manuscript to land on the right person’s desk on the right day when they’re in the right mood looking for the right book for their company. Sure, there are things you can do to increase your chances like researching the market, obeying the submission guidelines of the particular agency or publishing house, but ultimately…I believe that chance plays a big part in the journey to publication.

5. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?

When I set out to write “Gladiatrix,” I was determined not to do what I felt was a typical gladiator story a la Spartacus. I didn’t want to have the reluctant slave chafing against the tyrannical yoke of Rome before leading his (or her!) fellows in an uprising. In the research I did, I discovered that the great gladiators were the David Beckhams of their day – real sporting superstars. I thought I would apply this to women as well, because – going back to the football analogy which seems to be working well here – you have David Beckham and in the women’s game, there’s Mia Hamm. What I’m saying in “Gladiatrix” is that women are just as competitive as men in both the sporting (or gladiatorial) arena and in their lives.

I think “Gladiatrix” has something for men and women. I think that struggles and successes of the 1st century gladiatrices will resonate with 21st century women on all sorts of levels. It’s saying that what these women did was equally as valid as what the men were doing, it meant as much to them and if they succeeded they would reap the rewards.

And for the guys, it’s an exciting adventure story with lots sexy, sword wielding warrior-chicks. Gladiatrices! Spartans! Life and Death struggles! What more could you want – it should come with a free six pack of beer or something like that. And pictures.

6. Please, tell us about your next project.

I’m working on “Gladiatrix II” at the moment. It’s not going as quickly as I’d like because I have a very hectic work schedule, but I’ve promised that I will really knuckle down in the summer now that the project season is finished at work for another year.

“Gladiatrix II” takes Lysandra out of her comfort zone and lands her much bigger arenas – both literally and figuratively. The stakes are much higher this time, and also she has to face her own failings and weaknesses. The world that she’s entering is far more dangerous than anything she’s faced before – and I can tell you now that even I’m not sure if she’ll make it out alive. One thing I’ve tried to do with “Gladiatrix” was keep it real, and the sequel will be no different. I think that you’re cheating the readers if you have one of those characters that can always escape, always live to fight another day and all of that. I don’t like Hollywood endings! But, nothing’s set in stone yet (or saved to hard disk). Suffice to say that Lysandra will return for a new adventure next year!

Thank you, Russell. I'm sure many of us are looking forward to reading more about Lysandra and her adventures. If you'd like to learn more about Russell and his work, please visit him at:


Justin Aucoin said...

Great interview. I never realized there were female gladiators.

Also, love his football analogies.

Carla said...

Very interesting interview. I was most impressed by Gladiatrix and am looking forward to the sequel.

C.W. Gortner said...

Hi Justin,
Cool avatar! Yes, he's pretty funny. And the book is fun to read. I like it when he says it should come with a six-pack.

C.W. Gortner said...

Hi Carla,
Yeah, I devoured it. I found his style easy to read and engaging. I'm looking forward to the sequel, too.

C.W. Gortner said...
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