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Steven Saylor Interview
Berkeley, May 13, 2004
ORIGIN OF THE GORDIANUS SERIES
Q: Where did you get the idea for the first book in the Gordianus Series, ROMAN BLOOD?
Saylor: I had always been fascinated by Rome from childhood and I took a lot of history in college at the University of Texas at Austin. My first trip to Rome was in 1987, and of course it was just tremendously exciting being among those ruins; the connection was just amazing. So when I came back, I was beginning to read mystery fiction at about that time. I had read science fiction and fantasy for years, but I was beginning to read mysteries -- all of the Sherlock Holmes, and I read Umberto Ecos THE NAME OF THE ROSE which of course was an historical mystery and a popular book. And I got back to San Francisco and I wanted to read a murder mystery sent in Ancient Rome. I just had this craving, you know, thats the book I want to read. And at that time Lindsey Davis hadnt yet published and there was no such thing, really. Actually, there were such things published, but they werent readily available. And the thing I picked up to satisfy the craving was CICEROS MURDER TRIALS, translated by Michael Grant. And the first oration is Sextus Roscius, the case of the man accused a patricide. And as I read that, I just kept thinking that this could be made into a really good novel. I think often times a persons first novel is the book they want to read--that nobodys written. And thats the book theyre motivated to actually get written. So thats how that all sort of came together.
Q: So is this why you set the Gordianus series is set in the first century B.C.?
Saylor: Well thats what kind of kicked it off--the Cicero trial. Ones knowledge of Rome just kind of comes over a lifetime, mine has. You know, it begins with comic books and movies when I was a kid and goes to actually studying history. I had a history prof at the University of Texas who taught Roman History in two parts--Republic and Principate. He said the Republic was much more interesting than the Principate--that was his prejudice; and I did remember that. It was really funny that years later when I was talking to him as an author instead of a student, I told him about remembering that comment, he said that he was now so bored with the Republic and that he was more interested in the Principate. He had moved on, but Im still in the late Republic.
Q: When you wrote the first book, did you envision it as a series?
Saylor: No, I really didnt. I wanted to be a novelist and I was puttering around with other ideas. My editor at St. Martins was interested in more Gordianus books because the first book had just sold well enough and they had sold the paperback rights and a few foreign rights. When they asked me where was the next one in my series, I was a little like--no, no this is a literary novel. I didnt understand anything about the dynamics of publishing and the business of publishing. I guess I had that literary prejudice against series, but its kind of silly because I had read all of Sherlock Holmes, craving more and more and more. So when they actually suggested a series, I thought about it for about twenty-four hours and I thought well, theyre handing me this on a plate; an offer to write the end of the Roman Republic in as many books as I want. Find the murder mysteries. I think that in mystery publishing, they always have their eyes on a series. I think the hardest row to hoe as a mystery author or any genre is the "one off" author whose vision is just book by book. Because they want the sure thing, they want to build an audience, they want you to create a series.
Q: Each of your books seems to focus around a compelling historical event. Do you always look for this and how does it captivate you?
Saylor: Yes, there has to be a crux, there has to be some major event to hang the story on for me. And that was sort of a problem for my publisher because early on I was skipping seven years between novels. Because of coming to the history, the next thing I could see after ROMAN BLOOD was the Spartacus slave revolt. Now I have since gone back and written a lot of short stories. And I might have written a novel about the Sertorius, if I had kind of be more cognizant of Sertorius at the time. So I have filled in some gaps by writing short stories. The more recent novels come closer to each other chronologically because as I approach the Roman Civil War between Caesar and Pompey, suddenly there is so much to tell, such wonderful information, such wonderful sources, such huge empowering figures that I slowed down. Also, Gordianus is getting older and I didnt want him to suddenly be ninety. In the latest book, we have Caesars arrival in Alexandria. That has been a goal for a long time for me in the series--to get to Cleopatra.
Q: Which of these historical events have been the most interesting to you?
Saylor: Well, the revolt of Catilina was very fascinating. CATILINAS RIDDLE has been the longest book in the series, so far.
Q: The battle scene from that book has been the most memorable for me than any other event in the entire series. Is that true for you also?
Saylor: Other people have said that. Its funny. When I look at that passage, its only about a page or so towards the end of the book. Certain things stay with readers and you never know what image will snag in someones mind. Sometimes, its something I have spent days and days trying to get perfect and sometimes its something I wrote and went right on. Its a very interesting dynamic between the writer and the reader as to what impact a given scene or moment in a book has. Ive learned to kind of gauge it over time. When youre starting a novel, you really dont know what effect your words will have on a stranger.
Q: How do you struggle with the fine line between historical accuracy and keeping the plot interesting?
Saylor: There is the question about shoe-horning, that is whether you can get this into your plot or not. I have enough respect for history and historians that I certainly try to be careful. It matters to me that the novel has a feeling of accuracy. And I never do anything that is gratuitously wrong. When youre dealing with the historical figures, well never come up with the definitive Caesar or Cleopatra. Everybody is going to have their own vision.
Its really interesting that Thornton Wilder in his novel THE IDES OF MARCH doesnt mind having Claudius alive at the time of Caesars assassination even though he was killed years earlier--because he wants Claudius in the novel. He called it a fantasia of certain events. In his own mind, he justified historical inaccuracy simply because it was the way he wanted to tell the story. That would be very counter-intuitive for me. I would just never do that. I have found that in the ancient Roman sources so much is left out, there are such big gaps that theres a lot to fill-in in those gaps. You can conjecture. I think that if you were writing a novel about President Roosevelt, you might find yourself more constrained because we would know where he was every day. With Caesar, there are many things we dont know and we can invent plausible things if we want. There is the mystery writer Allen Max Collins--I was on a panel with him. He writes historical mysteries such as murder on the Titanic, more modern history. But he says that hes freed himself from the constraints of accuracy. Hes willing to invent things more freely to satisfy the plot. Thats something I kind of envy.
Q: Is Gordianus a plausible character set in that historical time?
Saylor: I think hes plausible. Some people have said that hes an American in a toga with his value system. You could write a novel about the ancient world in which you truly attempted to follow a really alien psychology, but I dont think it would be a very interesting novel. I think it would be almost unreadable. And also theres a Tolstoian view of history, because Tolstoy felt that all through history, no matter where you went in time you would find people with whom you had something in common. Sort of a bedrock human decency. But thats not necessarily an historical development. So thats what I find in Gordianus. He had been a slave owner, but he has small qualms non the less. I dont think that is far-fetched. I think that even in a slave society, where its taken for granted, there were decent people and some cruel people. And I think we see it in our world today.
Q: Why did you pick the name Gordianus?
Saylor: Well, after the Gordian knot. I would have loved to have named the character in ROMAN BLOOD Atticus. But Cicero had a correspondent name Atticus, who wrote many letters. Because of this kind of problem and because there just arent that many Roman names that arent taken in one way or another. With Gordianus, there is an emperor with that name centuries later. It is a bit of an anachronism to have that name. I refer to that in the new novel, THE JUDGMENT OF CAESAR. It comes up in Alexandria, where one of the boys says to his master, "Is that how you got your name?" He begins to answer, but hes interrupted and never does answer. This is the only time its brought up in the series -- a bit of an in-joke.
Q: Gordianuss family is very atypical. His wife Bethesda was his former slave. His two sons Eco and Meto were both adopted. His daughter Diana is married to his former slave/bodyguard, Davus. Can you give us some insight as to why you picked this type of family for Gordianus?
Saylor: John Maddox Roberts who writes the SPQR series chose to have an aristocratic hero. I wanted somebody more common. I didnt want to deal with the whole history of running for office and being an aristocrat; all of these intricacies didnt interest me at all. I wanted an outsider, but someone who would have access to that world, who could move between the lower and upper echelons of society. As far as his family goes, its really interesting that you said it was atypical. There was a review in the London Times Literary Supplement by Mary Beard who is a very good classicist. She made the comment that Gordianus has a typical Roman family--an emblematic Roman family--because it was a self-made family. I think that in this period of the Republic, that probably was more true than other times before the social constructs started to change and breakdown.
Q: Gordianus adopted son Meto has pursued a military career and has become very close and devoted to Caesar. Is this kind relationship based on historical research or is it purely fictional?
Saylor: Thats a purely fictional thing that happened. The characters that you create begin to give you access to ways to tell the story. As far as Metos being close to Caesar, it has just been a way to get close to Caesar in a personal frame.
Q: Are the truly historical characters harder to write about than the fictional characters?
Saylor: The real characters certainly dominate the books. In some of the books, they only appear a handful of times. For example in ARMS OF NEMESES, Crassus only has three scenes and yet to me he just dominates the whole book. And Sulla appears only twice in ROMAN BLOOD and yet he really dominates it. Those historical characters are such juicy roles that if they dont have to be on very long to leave an impression. Like Sir Lawrence Olivier on screen or stage. So you hope that youve digested those characters and gotten them down to a certain essence so that their appearances resonate. Cleopatra doesnt have a lot of screen time in THE JUDGMENT OF CAESAR but I hope she is vivid when she is on. With the created characters, you are more free to do what you want.
Q: In terms of the real characters, has there been one that is your favorite?
Saylor: I wouldnt pick a favorite. They say its a truism that all the characters in a book are manifestations of the author. I think that is actually true. You cant create something that is totally out of your own psyche or it wont work if you try. I think the hardest one for me to pin down has been Cleopatra. I had notions about Cleopatra from the movies and mainly from popular culture. We do not have really good sources for her because Plutarch would have never written a biography of her. It just wasnt done--you know, a biography of a woman. So we have pieces of her all over the place and of course, she was treated shabbily by later historians. So, the historical Cleopatra is a bit elusive and the popular culture Cleopatra is always so glamorous -- Elizabeth Taylor or a super model who played her in a recent TV series. The real Cleopatra probably wasnt really glamorous. Her images are not that astounding. She was a wily politician and the heir of the Ptolemy clan, which had been running Egypt for 300 years. Those people were pretty polished. The psychology of the Ptolemy family at this point, after all of that incest, all of that murder inside the family, was just not a pretty picture. They were a pretty nasty bunch of people. The closer I got to trying to pin down the real Cleopatra the more I think I managed to find my inner-Caesar and my inner-Pompey to get a feel of them--I had trouble finding my inner-Cleopatra. She was truly at a distance from me. She was elusive. This is a woman whose father murdered her older sister when her older sister made a power play. She is going to arrange the death of her siblings, all three of them, one after another. In the modern world, this is a dysfunctional family; not a healthy psychology. These people rise to such eminence of power and privilege and what they do to hold on to it is gangsterism. It is difficult for the average person to relate to the psychology of those people.
Q: Some of the more recent research indicates that she may not have been the most beautiful woman. What do you think?
Saylor: Theres controversy about that because the images we have of her. We have coinage which is essentially caricature and Ive heard it suggested that they may have wanted to make her look a little more masculine on the coinage anyway to make her look like a strong leader. So suddenly shes got the larger nose, the big jaw and that may not be accurate. Theres one bust of her that they think may be authentic in the Vatican. I think it is only partial, as well. The issue of her beauty shouldnt be the primary one. Later historians made her a wanton harlot. That was the propaganda against her by Octavia in Rome. In Jack Lindseys biography of Cleopatra he talks about that there is absolutely no reason for people to think that she was anything but actually quite prim and virtuous. We assume she had a child with Caesar, but we dont have any evidence of any other earlier liaisons. There is no reason she had sex with more than two people--Caesar and Mark Anthony. And yet, Octavia managed to paint her as this wanton woman and that carried through the centuries that she was this seductive siren type.
Q: Give us some comments on your newest book, THE JUDGMENT OF CAESAR.
Saylor: In all of the books I have tried to find a non-standard and more subversive approach to deal with the history. I always do assume that history is told by the winners, so theres got to be an untold story. In CATILINAS RIDDLE, for example, I went with the alternative view, not the standard view of Cicero just being a spotless heroic figure. So when I was approaching this whole story of Caesar arriving in Alexandria, I was looking for something that was going on here that isnt the obvious story. And what just jumped out with me was something I had never really seen done before. When you read Caesars memoir of the Civil War and all of the other history of the period, something is going on in that palace in Alexandria between three people--Cleopatra, Caesar and young Ptolemy. Young Ptolemy, even though his sister is treated shabbily by historians, looses right away. He is out of the picture early on. So we dont have his side of the story at all, really. And whenever he is portrayed in popular culture, for example in the Mankowitz Cleopatra film, he is this sort of snotty brat. He is the little brother and he has this eunuch advisor who is a simpering queen. So these people are truly "the other." They are the losers and they are also psychotically just the other--we dont like them. And when I actually look at them with fresh eyes, it struck me that there is no reason to assume that young Ptolemy is any less charismatic, interesting, or intelligent than his sister. And the relationship between young Ptolemy and Caesar is very close. Theyre cooped up in that palace for quite a period of time and Caesar wants to reconcile the two siblings. His goal, really, is to patch this Civil War thing up. Their father left the kingdom to them equally. The easiest answer is to get them not to fight, patch things up and move on. But thats just not going to happen. Cleopatra and Ptolemy cannot find common ground. So Caesar has to make a choice between the two siblings. I dont think its obvious that he would have chosen Cleopatra. Because when you actually read of his relationship with Ptolemy, there was some kind of mentoring thing happening. Ptolemy is young, but is probably as brilliant as his sister. Hes in the blood line of the Ptolemy. Hes one of the most sophisticated people of the era. Caesar himself had been mentored by Nicomedees when he was young man. So I think there may have been a relationship between Caesar and Ptolemy that we have simply not been told about. And in the crucial moment, when Ptolemy leaves the palace, he kind of knows hes going to stab Caesar in the back. He grabs him and hugs him and says, "Caesar, I love you more than my kingdom." The actual quote is in the afterwards of the book. So there is a strong emotional thing happening between all three of these people. I dont think it was obvious that Caesar was going to choose Cleopatra, early on. I think it happened because of events. So thats the story of THE JUDGMENT OF CAESAR and thats why its called that. Ultimately, Cleopatra did get to Caesar and she could give him an heir. I think that both of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra and her brother, have influenced Caesar towards this idea of kingship. Clearly they are the model in the ancient world with their dynasty. Theyve lasted for 300 years. Caesar must be starting to think about this. He is a world ruler now, hes beginning to think about leaving the Republic behind. He is going to be king of the world, but the Ptolemies are the model; and he doesnt have an heir though and Cleopatra can give him one. This would unite the kingdom of Egypt and Rome. Its just a logical thing for Caesar to start thinking about. I think Ptolemy got frozen out, largely because of his gender.
Q: Now that you have completed your tenth book in the series, is there one that is your favorite?
Saylor: As is with every author, its always the last one. Its like a series of lovers--its the current one.
Q: Whats next for Gordianus?
Saylor: The next book out about a year from now will be short stories. Ive written enough of those so it will be a book of short stories. Then the series will go on hiatus for a little while--I dont know how long because Im working on a big project called ROMA. This is going to be a sort of James Mitchner or Edward Rutherford historical epic. It will be kind of a biography of the city and it will be multi-generational. The first volume, if indeed it becomes a multi-volume series, will cover a big slot of time from the origins of Rome to the end of the Republic. Its going to have to be this big 800-page sweeping story of city. It will be a novel and have a lot of history in it. So my research for the last year has been the earliest origins of Rome, which is a fascinating period, especially right now. Ideas are very much in ferment about it among historians and classicists and archeologists about just how accurate the early chronicles of Rome are. Historians have tended to throw them out--stories of Romulus and Remes and the early kings. But more recent archeological evidence has indicated that perhaps the Roman chroniclers themselves knew more that we thought about the misty origins of Rome. I am very excited about that research. It will be real challenge to create a novel out of this.
I find that a bit of geology of Rome is important. You have to understand everything about the hills. Actually, Rome is there because of the salt trade. That is the earliest beginning of Rome--they had the salt marshes with the salt harvest down in Ostia. And Rome is sort of the best place to cross the Tiber, apparently because it has the little island in the middle, Tiber Island. So the conjunction of the salt trade, tribes up in the mountains, the river crossing and also the fortifiable hills led to the early, early settlements starting in Rome.
Q: Will it be focused around one character?
Saylor: I will probably have to have three families moving forward through time.
Q: Has this been done before?
Saylor: Not for Rome. Rutherford has done this for England, he has the big book on London. He has one called RUSSKA where he has done it for Russia. He has his new book about Dubln. Hes the current model of this type of book. It was Mitchner who did everything from Texas to Chesapeake.
Q: When in history will your ROMA novel stop?
Saylor: Im not sure whether it will get to the assassination of Caesar--it will be a very logical thing to do--through the life of the Republic. And if there is any need for a sequel, Ill proceed with the Principate and then medieval Rome, and then modern Rome all the way up to Fellini.
Q: With this new exciting project, will it be some time before you continue with the Gordianus series?
Saylor: As I said earlier, Gordianus will be on hiatus after the short stories, but I definitely want to get to the next thing which will most likely be the assassination of Caesar. And I know Gordianus is going to be there for that. Im not sure what his role or what his sentiments will be. He obviously has very mixed feelings about Caesar. I know that he will somehow be involved. Im not sure how I will create a murder mystery plot, but there will be one. There will be some unanswered questions about the assassination of Caesar.
Q: An if you then go on and Gordianus gets too old, will one of his children ever take over?
Saylor: Well, possibly. Thats been eluded to just a little bit that it might be his daughter Diana. In the last book, A MIST OF PROPHECIES, she makes some noises about helping him and doing some footwork and of course, hes taken back at the idea that his daughter would participate. And she doesnt see anything wrong with it--why not? So that idea has sort of been played with.
Q: Is there any movie or TV series in the offing?
Saylor: My agent always lives in hope. It hasnt happened yet. There have been nibbles of interest, but nothing concrete yet. We are about to see an influx of movies with TROY opening. Theres going to be a Hannibal movie. And there may be two Alexander movies. The fallout from GLADIATOR and the success of that film is beginning to be seen. I think the Hollywood types have gone for big concept, one word title movies--HANNIBAL, ALEXANDER, TROY with big battle scenes and something you think you know already. Theres going to be a series on HBO, called ROME. And its kind of daily life thing, its going to have a mystery element. It is being shot outside Rome. There was a story in The New York Times. It is being filmed outside Rome at the Cinacitta lot where theyve built a huge set and they hope it will be a successful series that will go on like THE SOPRANOS. And for the first time they are going to make it look like Rome. Its going to be colorful. They are obviously very conscious about the look of Ancient Rome and it be a bit of a pot-boiler. I think its about these two soldiers who come home from the wars, so like theres a common element. Also the guy who did NYPD BLUE was working on a Roman detective series, maybe for Network, and I dont know whether that ever happened. So all this popularity cant be bad for my books. Lots of people will want to read about Rome.
Q: Whats your process in writing a new novel?
Saylor: In the actual writing process, I have an idea of what the next plot node will be--the big subject, the historical thing I will hang my hat on. And then I do a lot of research on that historical window and its very specific at this point. For example, Caesar arriving in Alexandria. Thats a very limited time frame. I did have to ground myself in the Ptolomies and Alexandria, but also you have to find your timetable. Those specific events we cant really reconstruct day by day. For example, I could do that for A MURDER ON THE APPIAN WAY--the murder of Clodius and the Clamodus. Because of the sources you can actual make a day by day schedule for a lot of those events. That was just amazing to be able to do that. With Caesar in Alexandria, its a bit vague sometimes whether ten days pass or thirty days pass between events. So I have to create a chronology to start working that out. And then you begin to see how the plot might work and where the murder might take place. Theres always a murder. At some point Ive just done enough research and then I start working on the book. These books take about nine months to write.
Q: Was there any book you had to struggle with more?
Saylor: Only CATILINAS RIDDLE because it was so long and it kind of had two plots. It had the plot of Gordianus on the Etruscan farm and the whole revolutionary plot. It was like a two in one. It was just more work.
Q: Have you visited many of the sites where your books take place?
Saylor: Some but not all. My research has become more and more literary over time. In the beginning it was important for me to go to Italy and receive the inspiration and whole feeling and scale of things. That was very vital especially early on. For ARMS OF NEMESIS, I had to get an idea of just how big was Vesuvius. You dont really know unless you see it. You kind of have to be there. But more and more the stories revolve around the history, so the later books have centered around the literary research.
Q: When do you usually come up with the title?
Saylor: Sometimes the title is early and sometimes its very late. For example, THE JUDGMENT OF CAESAR, I did not have that until I finished the book. And then I started thinking about what the theme was and I thought its really about the choice Caesar made.
Q: What can you say about your colleagues who write mystery series set in Ancient Rome?
Saylor: I dont read any of them. I used to say that I dont read them because I dont want to pick up any of their research or their inventions. But the real fact is that at the end of a long hard day writing about Rome, I want to watch LAW & ORDER on TV. Im not craving other peoples Roman history. I just dont have an idea of what their writing is like. I know that Lindsey Davis is funnier and John Maddox Roberts is more straight forward history. I have read a few short stories of theirs. And, Ive met them and I know them, but I dont actually read them. Ive read Marilyn Todd because she writes short stories for Ellery Queen mystery magazine which I do read; so Ive read her short stories. As far as her history, she doesnt mind being sloppy about it. Theres humor.
Q: From the feedback you get from your readers, do you have a sense what they like most about your series?
Saylor: I do get email from readers in various countries. I was most excited when I got the first email from Poland. They keep selling new languages. I think what they most always say is that they like to be able to escape into this world. When I was younger, like a reader in High School, and I read Tolkien--I was very much into that kind of stuff--thats what really was the allure of reading. That whole other existence you stepped into. Maybe it still is; when I read Agatha Christy, you go through this door to another place. Apparently, I have succeeded in creating another world and its a place other people want to go.
Q: Is there a lot of pressure from your publisher to come up with a book a year?
Saylor: Yes, they would love you to turn out a book a year. I have never quite managed that. I seem to be on an 18-month cycle. They would love every author to have a book out the same time every year since the readers sort of expect that.
Q: How many languages and countries are your books published in?
Saylor: I think its fourteen. I always keep that updated on my website. I have boxes of these things. They always send me five or ten copies of each. I have no use for them, but the covers are particularly interesting. My favorites are the Polish--they are beautiful, they are these montages, statuary in flames. Weve just had the Hungarian; their very interesting too. The Finnish cover was very strange. It was a grainy, blurry photo of a Roman statue head. I thought I had received some defective copies since there appeared to be these red scratch marks. They are very avant garde looking. It is very interesting what sells the book in one country as opposed to another. For the cover of VENUS THROW in the United States, the original hardback had a kind of purplish hue, and its the statue of Venus, and shes in that pose where she is sort of the modest Venus. When the salesman from St. Martins was showing it at a book conference, a sales rep from the South said, "I cant sell that book. I cannot sell that cover." So what they did, they kept the cover, but they cropped it until it was a little more modest. I dont think there is anything below the waist. And its actually a stronger image.
Q: Have your books been published in Italian?
Saylor: I dont have an Italian publisher. I never have. St. Martins actually handles the foreign rights, and for some reason they have never gotten into the Italian market. At one point, I think they had bad experiences with Italian publishers not paying. Theres been a recent nibble of someone possibly being interested. Ive lost my Spanish publisher in recent years. I get emails from Spaniards who cant finish the series and theyre very upset. I tell my publisher that we have to find another Spanish publisher.
Q: With the Gordianus series, are the largest sales in the United States?
Saylor: Most of the money comes from the U.S. sales. Its a big market. U. K. is probably second. Anyone who is an American author is lucky because, I dont know how authors in other countries make a living. If youre a Polish novelist, how do you manage to make a living just off of that market. You notice we dont get a lot of translated novels anymore. Every American author is translated in Europe. Just as American movies dominate, American publishing dominates in the world. We get a trickle of French novels--I never see German novels anymore.
Q: You have an excellent author website (www.stevensaylor.com). Did you design it and do you maintain the website yourself?
Saylor: Yes, its kind of my hobby. The software is easy enough to use for me. I almost never have to have any troubleshooting. I love updating it. Just last night, I updated my book tour information and my new author photo. All of my reader feedback is through my website. I never get letters anymore. I used to; the publisher would send me a batch of letters every three months.
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