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: 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:; 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 Niño 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 (, and also a talk I gave at the International Conference on the Ancient Novel in Lisbon (

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:, 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.


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

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Picture Postcard #3 - In the Morning

We attack the beach at Troy in the morning and I look back, toward home.

I sit and stare west to Achaea across the sea where only yesterday our thousand ships had cut the deep.

My comrades are jovial, thirsty for blood and wine, for women and Trojan gold.

But how can we breach or scale those high walls? They are god-made.  The horse-tamers of Ilium are battle-hardened.

Even with the mighty Achilles and Ajax, Diomedes, cunning Odysseus, Menelaus and kingly Agamemnon, I fear that our charges will break upon the walls to leave a feast for carrion crows and dogs.

The last time I saw a sunset like this I sat with my wife and daughters in the olive grove outside our home. We laughed as the cicadas fell slowly to sleep and fireflies lit those green and silver leaves.

The poet said that war breeds heroes, and that is true. But it also breeds widows and orphans and the death of bloodlines.

Oh goddess, if you can hear me now…

Watch over my wife and children. May I live to see them again, to hold them, to laugh and love and watch this same sun set upon our lands.

I am a warrior. I am strong. My sword and spear are sharp and my bronze and oak shield thick enough to break a hundred Trojan charges.

If I am to fight, let it be for the glory of my gods, of my family and of the land which I long to see again.

I will bleed for you… but I would not yet cross the fiery threshold of Hades.

Gods of Olympus, let this war’s raging be swift that we may all return home soon, the beaks of our ships adorned with wreaths of victory.

May the light of that setting sun guide us home evermore. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Primary Source E-Books for All!

For historians and historical novelists alike, a major part of the creative process is research. Primary sources in particular are a very important part of that and give a direct voice to the age about which you are writing.

Previously, primary sources were not always easy to find as the big retailers stocked only the major sellers of the Penguin Classics series such as Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul or Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander. Few commercial retailers stocked a wide variety of the Loeb Classical library and when they did, the prices were often too high.

With the advent of e-books and large scale digitization projects, that has changed.

One of the best discoveries I have made on-line is the website for Project Gutenberg. The project was founded by Michael Hart who was dealing with e-books long before anyone had heard of such a thing. He stated the mission of Project Gutenberg as follows:  “To encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.”

It’s simple and straightforward and anyone can contribute. It’s also one amazing resource that makes research easy. Loads of primary sources, especially ancient and medieval texts, are now accessible in digital format.

I found it when I was in need of some of Cassius Dio's books for research for my Eagles and Dragons series. Once I got onto the site, I started searching for other ancient texts that I had always wanted but either couldn’t find or justify the expense of purchasing elsewhere.

It was like a candy store for historians. So, I plugged in my Kindle and started downloading Xenophon, Herodotus, Plato, Virgil, Apollonius of Rhodes, Aristotle, Homer, Cassius Dio and others. And it’s all stored on my e-reader.

The Arthurian enthusiast in me is also happy to see the romances of Chrétien de Troyes on there, as well as such important ‘Dark Age’ sources as Nennius, Gildas and Aneirin.

My impression before was that Project Gutenberg was just for historical texts but there has been a new development.

The site has launched a new Self-Publishing Portal to facilitate on-line publishing by contemporary authors. This is all about free access.

There is a trend now among many authors to make their work, especially the first book in a series, available for free. Project Gutenberg is one place where you can do that. Check out the Self-Publishing Portal HERE

There are of course other websites where you can access ancient texts. The Perseus Digital Library of Tufts University is one such resource. However, for Project Gutenberg, I like how easy it is to download files for your e-reader, especially a mobi version for Kindle. Check out the site HERE and see what you can find.

The internet has so much on it now it can be quiet overwhelming for someone doing research and there is the added caveat that you must scrutinize whatever it is you are looking at closely for accuracy in translation.

Despite that, we are far better off than we were when it comes to access to ancient and medieval primary sources. The past is literally at our fingertips now and that, without a doubt, is a very good thing indeed.

If you have any other recommended sites you would like to share, please do so in the comments box below. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Richard III – The Blurring of Fact in Fiction

The Battle of Bosworth

For several months now I’ve been following the research and test results on a skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park in the UK. It was believed that the remains belonged to none other than King Richard III, last monarch of the House of York and the last English king to die in battle.

Richard III was slain during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. His forces outnumbered those of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) but despite that, Richard lost. The accession of Henry VII thus ushered in what became known as the Tudor Age. It was, more or less, the end of the Middle Ages. 

Last year, a team from the University of Leicester began a series of tests on the skeleton that was found and this week they have released the results. You can read about it on the BBC by clicking HERE.

Skeleton of Richard III, in-situ, beneath Leicester car park
Notice the curve of the spine in the middle
There are many nay-sayers who believe the results come from a bit of dodgy science but most agree that the remains are ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king.

I won’t get into all the exact science and the genetic tests that helped the team come to their conclusions, fascinating though it is.

What I found interesting is the appearance of the skeleton itself.

For most, including myself, the image of Richard III that comes to mind is that created by William Shakespeare in his play Richard III.

"But I, - that am not shap'd for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph; 
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, 
Deform'd, unfinishe'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;-"
(King Richard III, Act I, Scene I)

Lawrence Olivier as Richard III
I can’t help but picture Laurence Olivier when I think of Richard III, the humped back, the gammy leg and limp, the shortened arm. Shakespeare’s grotesque, scheming king is the image that my mind conjures without hesitation. Olivier was brilliant in the role, by the way.

However, in light of the discovery of the body of Richard III, it appears that the former image of Richard Plantagenet as a sort of monster was largely fabricated by Shakespeare. History, as we know, is written by the victors and William Shakespeare (apologies to all you Oxfordian theorists out there!) was a Tudor man through and through.

The skeletal remains that have been exhumed and studied these past months do show signs of scoliosis, an extreme curvature of the spine, but that is about it. Otherwise the body is ‘normal’ if slight in build according to researchers. No shortened arm or crippled leg, no deformity of the shoulders.

In fact, a reconstruction of the face based on the remains brings to light an almost handsome man. 

Based on these new findings, there is one question I want to ask.

In historical fiction, is it acceptable to drastically alter the personality and appearance of a person to suit the story?

I do consider the play Richard III to be historical fiction. Richard Plantagenet may well have been a monster of a person as far as his personality but it seems certain now that he was not as grotesque in appearance as Shakespeare and others of the period would have had us believe.

William Shakespeare
I am looking at this in hindsight and so it is easy for me to judge the writers of the time. Plays were very useful political tools in Tudor and Elizabethan England so it is not surprising that Richard III was portrayed a certain way in order to help smooth the Tudor claim. And it’s a bloody good story!

However, the line between absolute truth and fiction is often very fine.

The storyteller and historian in me are often at odds when I am writing. Is it more acceptable to change the appearance or personality of an historical person? Are the primary and secondary sources I am using accurate themselves?

These are questions that face the historical novelist.

When dealing with the big names of ancient history and ancient sources, one can never be absolutely certain of the accuracy. We can cross reference sources, including art, to try and develop the most accurate picture.

But often the most accurate picture is not the most entertaining. Yes, historical novelists have an obligation to portray people accurately but story also needs to be honoured.

Extreme changes are a bit difficult to justify but a slight tweaking here or there is acceptable. The thing to remember is that if any drastic changes are made the author should point them out in the Historical Note or Author’s Note at the end of the book.

Alexander the Great
As a writer, I know that not every reader will be happy with how I portray things and that’s ok.

At the moment, I am writing the first book in a trilogy of Alexander the Great (read a previous post on this project HERE). Alexander the Great is an historic person to whom many people are attached.

Alexander was a many-faceted individual and evokes as many emotions in people. The spectrum of views on Alexander is as vast as the empire he created. Realistically, there is no way a writer can successfully and completely explore every aspect of Alexander’s nature.

The Alexander I write about may be quite different from the Alexander someone else writes about.

Was Shakespeare wrong to portray Richard III as he did when it now seems obvious that his portrayal was inaccurate?

I don’t think so. We have to remember that Shakespeare was a product of his age and the way he wrote Richard may well have been the general perception people had of the recent monarch; the Tudor propagandists were very efficient. Perhaps Richard was someone mothers used to scare their children into going to bed, the King who imprisoned and killed little children?

Persians as portrayed in the movie 300
A similar portrayal might be of the Persians in Frank Miller’s 300, on which the movie was based. Now, I love that movie but I know for sure that the Persians of Xerxes were not monsters like in the book and movie.

However, at the time, an invading Persian army that was sweeping south through Greece and burned Athens would most certainly have struck terror into the hearts of the Greek populace of all city states. The wicked portrayal reflects a particular perspective.

It is the job of both the novelist and the historian to sift through the sources of history, the different perspectives, to get as close as possible to the truth.

The difference is that while the historian cannot, in good conscience, stray from the truth, the novelist has a certain freedom to do so, an obligation almost.

There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the historical record and there are often contradicting pieces of information.

The historical fiction writer’s task then is to gather the information, decide on a perspective and write about your chosen person or period in a way that is as accurate as possible but also entertaining and engaging.

Facial Reconstruction of
Richard III
I wonder if, in light of this week’s revelations, we’ll start seeing Richard III played a little differently at various Shakespeare festivals?

One thing is certain. A lot of history books will need to be re-written.