Interview by Ursus
On behalf of UNRV it is my pleasure to interview Caroline Lawrence, author of the Roman Mysteries series. Caroline is known by her alter ego "Flavia Gemina" on UNRV.
Jeremy Baer, aka "Ursus": We haven't seen you around the fora in some time, Caroline. Finishing up another book before a deadline?
Caroline Lawrence: Yes, I’m very busy trying to write the first draft of my penultimate book, The Prophet from Ephesus, before I go to Turkey for research purposes. I must also confess I’ve just discovered HBO’s The Wire and have been watching that a lot. I love good TV and films as well as books. You could say that storytelling in its broadest sense is my passion.
Ursus: So what on earth made you decide to do a mystery thriller for young readers set in Rome?
Caroline: I used to teach Latin here in London to children aged 8 to 11. There are some great textbooks and resources, but no books that actually ‘transport’ the children back in time the way a good adventure story can. Even for very bright English children, Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease are a bit too challenging. Probably also a little old-fashioned. Kids today want their stories to be as fast paced as the movies they watch and the videogames they play. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing some. As soon as I had the idea: Nancy Drew in Ancient Rome, I knew that it had the possibility to be a huge hit. Also, I’d always thought being a writer would be the best job – you sit around in your pyjamas all day drinking hot chocolate and making up stories – and it is!
Ursus: Have you received any positive feedback from parents regarding inspiring their kids to read?
Caroline: Yes, I’ve had quite a few parents telling me that my books are the first their son or daughter has got stuck into, but more importantly I hear from the kids themselves. I have thousands of messages on over seventy pages of fan mail on my website, one for each month of the past seven years my books have been around. Check out my latest fanmail page.
Ursus: How many books do you intend to do in the series?
Caroline: I plan to write seventeen proper novels which take place from June AD 79 to September AD 81, i.e. the reign of Titus and should be read in order. But there are also two quiz books, two volumes of short stories, a stand alone ‘mini-mystery’, a glossy Companion to the TV series called The Roman Mysteries Treasury and a Travel Guide. So about twenty-five books in all.
Ursus: I hear there was a television adaptation of the series. Can you tell us about that?
Caroline: The BBC has co-produced two seasons of five one hour episodes of The Roman Mysteries in what is the most expensive children’s TV series yet produced here in England. Season one was shot in Tunisia and season two in Bulgaria. I was lucky enough to visit both sets and have put up lots of pictures on my website. For me it was like going back in time to see dozens of extras in (mostly) authentic costume wandering around (mostly) authentic sets. Season one will air in America this September on Rainbow Media’s Family Room HD channel. For more information, go here.
Ursus: How do you manage to convey the complexities of classical civilization to a young audience? There are some university students that still can't grasp Epicureanism, for instance.
Caroline: I am a concrete thinker. I need to see things in pictures or symbols to understand them. In this way, I am like many 11-year-olds. I read about a subject until I understand it, then try to put it into terms I can understand. That way, fourth graders can understand it, too.
Ursus: On the forum you named yourself after your primary character, Flavia. Do you identify with the character? Solve any mysteries in your youth?
Caroline: I totally identify myself with Flavia. I am like her in being bossy, impulsive, opinionated and enthusiastic about learning. I am NOT like Flavia in being a good detective. As I say at the beginning of the travel guide:
Some people think that because I write detective stories I am clever and observant. The reality could not be further from the truth. Because I'm a daydreamer, I forget people's names, can't remember faces, and often fail to notice huge differences in some of my closest friends: things like different hair colour, new glasses and drastic weight loss.
Ursus: What books were you reading when you were Flavia's age?
I also have a total block about cars. Except for E-type Jaguars and SmartCars, they all look the same to me. If the police asked me for the description of a car that caused an accident, I would probably say, 'Um… it was silver?'
That's why I admire fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew and Adrian Monk so much. They really see and remember the details. And that's why I created my own fictional detectives.
Caroline: I was devouring the Nancy Drew mystery stories. Also, my mother was still reading to me and my brother and sister, even though we were 11, 10 and 9 respectively. She read Saki, Rudyard Kipling and Sherlock Holmes.
Ursus: Tell us about your education at Cambridge and the University of London. What prompted you to study archaeology and Jewish studies?
Caroline: When I was 18 I read the book that changed my life, The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault. Until then, I thought history was boring. But Renault’s book transported me to Classical Greece: the tastes, the smells, the mindset, everything. When I went to Berkeley I signed up for Classical Greek. And loved it! Then I did Latin. And loved it, too. What fascinates me most – and still does – is how similar we are to the ancients, especially the Romans. You really get a sense of this when you read primary sources.
After Berkeley, I won a Marshall Scholarship to study Classics at Newnham College Cambridge. Because everybody there was so much better at Greek and Latin, I majored in Classical Archaeology, which really isn’t archaeology at all. It’s Greek and Roman art and architecture. I adored that, too. I went on one dig on a Roman fort near Wroxeter… and I hated it. I’d so much rather be studying the art in a museum or reading the primary sources than scraping a posthole with a trowel.
In my late 20’s I converted to Christianity and paradoxically became interested in my Jewish roots. (My father was Jewish.) I studied Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London and loved that, too. One of the issues I address in my books is the co-existence of the Roman religion alongside of Judaism and a form of Christianity which was still a sect of Judaism.
Ursus: Do you have any plans to write any non-fiction?
Caroline: I’ve written a couple of non-fiction articles for scholarly journals but I find fiction infinitely more exciting. I will never forget walking through a library in the School of Oriental and African Studies here in London and seeing scholarly tomes from the last century whose pages had never been cut! Who wants to write books nobody will read?
Ursus: How do you research your novels?
Caroline: I read, read, read. Especially primary sources. Although I skim through them in translation, my Greek, Latin and Hebrew are good enough for me to carefully check any passages I decide to reference.
I go to museums. London has two brilliant resources for Classicists: the British Museum and the Museum of London. I also visit archaeological sites, both here in Britain and abroad.
I attend re-enactment events and talk to the re-enactors. They more than scholars know what it was really like to wear armour all day, or strigil off at the baths, or cook on a hearth with garum and honey for seasoning.
I also travel to every place my books are set, to glean sensory details about flora, fauna, seasonal foods and local customs that might be holdovers from Roman times. As a result I’ve been to Ostia, Rome and Sorrento several times. I’ve recently visited Corinth, Delphi, Athens, Rhodes and the Dodecanese, Morocco, Libya and Egypt. When I was researching The Gladiators from Capua, I attended a bullfight in Spain. The similarities to a day in the arena are astonishing. For my book set in Egypt, my husband and I took a boat up the Nile. When I was in the Bay of Naples, I went to a spa on the Island of Ischia with sulfur waters and a hot mud bath, just as the Romans might have enjoyed across the water in Baiae. In Fez I wandered through the souk to see coppersmiths, dyers, weavers, carpenters and butchers displaying sides of meat and sheep heads covered with flies. In Marrakech you can see acrobats, snake-charmers, dentists and storytellers all gathered together in the Djemaa-el Fna. The fruits of my observations are collected in From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina, a travel guide for fans of my books which sets them detective assignments and tasks to do in nine different locations.
Ursus: Can you elucidate how you structure your stories? And how you add texture and depth to them?
Caroline: I use screenwriting plot techniques to keep my plots fast-moving, so that my readers don’t even realise they’re absorbing lots of historical facts and Latin words.
I have also gone to myth-based cult favorites like Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Buffy and Lord of the Rings to find my four archetypal characters: the Leader (Flavia), the Faithful Sidekick (Nubia), the Funny One (Jonathan) and the Wild One (Lupus).
I have also planned out character arcs for each of my four characters. For example, Nubia’s arc will be from slavery to freedom, in every sense of the word.
Each of my books also has an underlying Greek myth and a Roman topic. In The Sirens of Surrentum the myth is Odysseus and the sirens and the topic is Sex and Decadence in Roman times. (For that reason it is the most ‘grown-up’ of all my books.) Other topics my books cover are the chariot races, patrons and clients, slave and free, gladiators and beast fighters, disease and medicine, etc. I also work in a lot of Roman and Jewish festivals. The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina is set during the Saturnalia. And of course I work in as many fun Roman facts as I can, history, literature, art, architectures and what I call the ewww-factor. Like how Romans used a sponge-on-a-stick as toilet paper.
Ursus: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Caroline: Mary Renault first and foremost for historical fiction, followed closely by Patrick O’Brian. I also love Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Philip K. Dick. My favourite Roman Mysteries for adults are those by Steven Saylor. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him once or twice and I dedicated my first volume of short stories to him: Trimalchio’s Feast and Other Mini-Mysteries.
Ursus: I noted you added Suetonius to your novel. How do you go about adding these historical characters?
Caroline: When I decided to set one of my mysteries around the eruption of Vesuvius, I suddenly found I had a very specific time frame. It was fascinating to discover that in AD 79, Pliny the Elder was 53 and his nephew Pliny the younger was only 17! Titus and Martial were both about 40 but Suetonius was only ten, the same age as Flavia.
Like many other authors of historical fiction, I like to have real historical figures interact with my fictional characters. So far in my books we have met both Plinys (and my characters witness the death of the elder), Titus, Domitian, Martial, Quintillian, and Josephus. Pollius Felix and Polla Argentaria were real, too, and probably lived at the so-called Villa of Pollius Felix in Sorrento, where two of my books take place. I often incorporate the stories of dead Romans like Nero, Seneca, Lucan, Augustus, Claudius, Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra (though of course she’s not strictly Roman). Finally, the minor poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus, author of an unfinished Argonautica, is Flavia’s main love interest in the second half of the series.
Ursus: What are some of your favorite films, historical or otherwise?
Caroline: I adore films and could tell you hundreds of my favourites. But the top ten are: Star Wars, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Moonstruck, Blade Runner, The Big Lebowski, Annie Hall, Back to the Future, Twelve Monkeys and Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I love the look of Fellini’s Satyricon. It’s probably the closest we’ve come to depicting ancient Rome, but it’s not a film I like to re-watch at lot: too brutal and ugly. Films like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and even Gladiator have too many errors in them, though I still enjoy watching them from time to time. Funny Thing and Life of Brian are probably closer to the mark than any of those other sword and sandal epics.
Ursus: If you could time travel, what events would you want to witness?
Caroline: That’s easy. I would spend a day at the races in the Circus Maximus. You can replicate many experiences the ancient Romans would have known but there is nothing in the world today which can come close to the experience of sitting in a stadium with a QUARTER OF A MILLION spectators watching twelve four-horse chariots pulled by ungelded stallions carrying riders standing on what was essentially a basket on wheels. When chariots crashed or overturned, the whole crowd shouted ‘naufragium!’ (shipwreck!) and one ancient author talks of ‘horses’ legs crackling in the spokes of the wheels’. That is one day out you would never forget.
Ursus: Finally, if there is one thing you could say to a promising young reader, a word of wisdom as it were, what would it be?
Caroline: My own (and Flavia’s) favourite Latin motto: Carpe diem!
Oh and please visit my website!
...back to the review of The Sirens of Surrentum