Saturday, February 23, 2013

An Interview with Steven Saylor


There are several historical fiction writers whose canvas is the ancient world but for me, the one that truly stands out is Steven Saylor.

Steven is the author of the Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries featuring Gordianus the Finder and set in the ancient Rome of Cicero, Caesar, and Cleopatra.

Steven’s books have been published in 22 languages and he has appeared in two television documentaries on ancient Rome, both shown internationally on The History Channel.

As a writer, Steven has an uncanny ability for bringing the world of ancient Rome to life. So, it is a real treat to hear about how he became interested in the ancient world and to gain some insight into his creative process and what the future holds.


WP: What got you interested in historical fiction in the first place? Was it a particular book?

SS: When I was a boy, way back in the 1960s, the library in Goldthwaite, Texas, had a series of books called “We Were There,” in which a boy and girl would take part in a famous historical event, as in We Were There at the Battle of Britain. (I see there is a Wikipedia article that lists all the titles in the series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Were_There.) I loved that series, but it didn’t include ancient history. 

For that, I turned to an illustrated novel called Cleopatra of Egypt by Leonora Hornblow, published by Landmark Books in 1961. A few years ago, when I spoke at a fundraiser for the Goldthwaite library, the librarian decommissioned that volume and presented it to me as a gift; the book still had the sleeve with the old borrower’s card with my handwritten name and the due date when I checked it out (12-7-66). In high school, I moved on to more adult reading, checking out the novels of Mary Renault from the same small-town library.

WP: Many authors struggle for years to break out or get noticed. What was your writing/publishing journey like and how long did it take?

SS: I wanted to be an author from early childhood. When I was fourteen, I was a winner in a national writing contest and had a story printed in a Methodist Sunday school magazine called Accent on Youth; they also sent me a check for $25. (That story, “Season of Guilt” can be read at my Web site: http://www.stevensaylor.com/Season%20of%20Guilt/Season_of_Guilt.html; perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a work of historical fiction.) Seeing my work in print and getting paid...I knew that was what I wanted to do from then on.

I majored in History at UT Austin and wrote a lot of college papers, and in my first job out of college, as a clerk for the State of Texas, I ended up rewriting memos and forms for my boss. So writing skills were always my ticket. Then I moved to San Francisco, and all through my twenties I worked for the gay press, wearing lots of hats and learning the ropes of publishing. I also wrote a lot of erotica in my twenties. (I was way ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey!) All those stories are in e-editions now, under the by-line Aaron Travis.

And then, after my first trip to Rome in my late twenties, I arrived back in San Francisco craving a mystery novel set in ancient Rome. (I was deep into reading Sherlock Holmes at that point.) Sometimes, the first novel you write is the novel you most want to read, but no one else has written yet, so the task falls to you. My inspiration was a real trial, as recounted by Cicero in his speech defending a man accused of murdering his father; working from that source material, I came to write Roman Blood, inventing the sleuth Gordianus the Finder to investigate for Cicero. The book was just successful enough to merit a sequel, and then I was off and running.

WP: You really bring a place to life in your writing. Have you travelled to all the places you have written about and how important do you think travelling is?

SS: I’ve traveled in Italy and around Europe, but I certainly haven’t been to every location that Gordianus visits. I do think it’s important for a writer of historical fiction to travel and see the world, simply to experience different types of cities and people and landscapes. I did a lot of hiking in my twenties and thirties, and simply learning to read topo maps, understanding how geography actually works, gave me an important skill set. And curiously, the closest I’ve ever come to actually being in the ancient world was not during a trip to Italy but to Mexico, when I went to see the shrine of El NiƱo de Atocha and also to a pagan church in the Yucatan. The worshippers there duplicated precisely the kind of rituals that took place at ancient sites like the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus—marketplaces selling talismanic images of the god (or saint), prayers for specific favors from the deity, even animal sacrifice. (In Mexico it was chickens rather than a bull.) You won’t see anything as authentically pagan in Europe today, but you can still experience it in Mexico.

WP: Where do you stand on the notion that a place has memory? Are there any experiences you would like to share about when a place really ‘spoke’ to you?

SS: My very first sight of the Roman Forum was truly electrifying. But I’m not a mystical sort, and I mainly put that experience down to jet-lag, since that was my first long plane trip and I didn’t sleep on the plane, had to find a pensione first thing, and then stumbled up the Capitoline Hill and suddenly saw the ruins of the Forum below me. I thought I was hallucinating.

WP: Academia often frowns on the popularization of history through movies, books and other media. How do you reconcile your academic background with writing historical fiction?

SS: I have only a BA in History and have never taught, so I’ve never been an academic. But I do sometimes think of myself as a sort of perpetual grad student without portfolio, doing my own independent research and publishing on my own schedule, with no professors breathing down my neck. I do love playing the student role, soaking up knowledge; the Classics Department at Berkeley presents lots of public lectures, and I attend them all. Despite my lack of credentials, I have been very nicely treated by academia. Many scholars are among my readers, and I’ve been invited to speak at a number of universities and academic conferences. At my Web site, you can read my commencement address to the UC Berkeley Classics Department (http://www.stevensaylor.com/UCAddress.html), and also a talk I gave at the International Conference on the Ancient Novel in Lisbon (http://www.stevensaylor.com/ICANpaper.html).

WP: What is your favourite historical fiction novel?

SS: I have fond memories of all Mary Renault’s novels, though I have not reread them in many years; Funeral Games was a particular favorite, because it was so stark and uncompromising. I also have to give a shout-out to The Roman by Mika Waltari, a wickedly satirical novel set in the times of Nero, with one of the most deluded narrators ever, a Roman aristocrat who truly cannot see the forest for the trees; when Nero set him the task of arranging for lions to kill the Christians, his main worry is that the audience will get bored if the “show” is too repetitious.

WP: Is there a current writer whose work you particularly enjoy at the moment?

SS: I read every novel by Ruth Rendell as soon as it comes out; she made her mark writing deviously plotted thrillers, but now she’s evolved into the Dickens of 21st-century London, writing picaresque novels about various parts of the city and the curious characters who live there. I also read everything by Deryn Lake, who writes historical mysteries (mostly set in Georgian England) and who’s a good friend of mine; I hear her voice when I read her work, so a new book by her is a chance to spend a few hours in her company, even though she’s far away in London.

WP: Do you envision yourself writing in ancient Rome only or are there other periods you would like to explore? Is there a historic person in particular whose story you would like to write?

SS: I do indeed have a “secret project” that I hope someday to write, but I won’t say much about it, because I don’t want someone else to get there first! I will say that the setting is the Greek world in the 6th century B.C., the age of King Croesus. It’s a period largely unexplored by novelists, who tend to look earlier (to Homeric times) or later (to the ages of Pericles or Alexander the Great).

WP: Do you ever see your work being made into a movie? Who would play Gordianus?

SS: Much as I love watching ancient world movies (I devote a large part of my Web site to this hobby: http://www.stevensaylor.com/StevensBookshopDVDNewMovies.html), I have never particularly craved seeing my own work on the big screen. The obvious benefit would be monetary, so of course I’d like to see a successful movie or TV series made from my work. (I do think The Seven Wonders, with its episodic structure and fantastic potential for CGI visits to the Wonders, would make a great TV series.) There have been nibbles from Hollywood over the years (including a screenplay for Arms of Nemesis by the late Donald Westlake), but cinematic adaptation is not a dream of mine, and I never imagine particular actors playing my characters.

WP: Do you have any writing rituals that you would like to share?

SS: After the death of Gore Vidal last year, a number of articles quoted his eminently quotable epigrams, and one in particular struck a chord with me: “First coffee, then a bowel movement. Then the Muse joins me.”

WP: What is your next project?

SS: My last novel, out in 2012, was a prequel to the Roma Sub Rosa series called The Seven Wonders, in which my sleuth Gordianus the Finder, at age 18, sets out from Rome on a journey to see the Wonders. The next novel follows directly on The Seven Wonders, with young Gordianus in Egypt, and a plot to steal the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. It's called Raiders of the Nile and should be out in summer or fall of 2013.

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I’d like to thank Steven Saylor for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer all of my questions for Writing the Past. I’m certainly going to check out some of his recommendations. I’m also very excited about the release of Raiders of the Nile this year.

Each one of Steven’s books is a true joy to read and a magnificent escape into the ancient world. They teach, they entertain and they inspire. Highly recommended!

For links to his books and loads of information related to the ancient world in history and the media, check out Steven’s website at http://www.stevensaylor.com.

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