Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Steven Saylor’s mystery series Roma Sub Rosa. For more than a decade he has been writing books that reveal the sordid side of the great city. Murder, sex, political scandal, it’s all in there. He has now completed his tenth installment, A Mist of Prophecies. Here, the author reveals all that goes into creating the popular series.
texasmonthly.com: What inspired you to write the series Roma Sub Rosa?
Steven Saylor: I studied Roman history at UT in Austin in the late 1970’s under M. Gwyn Morgan (who’s still teaching there), but I didn’t actually visit Rome until about ten years later. Making contact with those ancient ruins electrified my imagination, and I found myself craving a murder mystery set in ancient Rome. At that time, no such novel seemed to exist—so I wrote it myself, taking as inspiration Cicero’s first big murder case, which involved a man accused of killing his father. The result was Roman Blood, which turned out to be the first in my ongoing series featuring Gordianus the Finder, a sleuth who wends his way among the treacherous ruling class of ancient Rome. There are ten titles in the series now, translated into a dozen languages.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite installment?
SS: Like most authors, I’m usually partial to the most recent book because that’s the one nearest to my current state of mind. In the latest, A Mist of Prophecies, my hero Gordianus undergoes a bit of a midlife crisis and finds himself involved in an adulterous love affair. I’m not a confessional writer, so I won’t tell you just how closely life mirrors art in this case, but I will say that it seems every man experiences some sort of second childhood if he lives long enough. Despite his high moral sensibility, Gordianus is no exception, and neither is his less-noble creator.
texasmonthly.com: What else can readers expect from your newest book?
SS: The first books in the series were based on actual crimes and trials, and along with the sweeping historical setting, they were essentially courtroom dramas. Then I reached the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and the trials ended as the whole Roman world erupted in total war. That’s yielded books with plenty of action—cities under siege, soldiers tunneling under walls, naval battles—but always with a murder mystery driving the plot. With A Mist of Prophecies, I wanted to get back to the city of Rome itself and see what the women were doing while their husbands and brothers were off fighting in the field. As you might expect, the women were up to their necks in just as much intrigue and skullduggery as the men.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research must go into the writing of these historical fictions?
SS: I’ve traveled to many of the places where the stories occur; nothing can take the place of on-site research. I’m also the lucky beneficiary of centuries of incredible scholarship about ancient Rome. And the primary sources themselves are amazingly rich: cookbooks, erotic poetry, natural history, courtroom speeches, private letters—everything we need to imagine the sights and sounds and smells of ancient Rome. With all the sexual and political scandals, murder and mayhem, the research is never boring.
texasmonthly.com: You are considered an authority on ancient Rome. What attracted you to the study of Classics?
SS: From childhood I was drawn into a fascination with the ancient world by movies like Cleopatra and Spartacus. When I graduated with a BA in History from UT, I might have gone on to graduate studies, but I was drawn to become a novelist instead. Becoming an academic was the road not taken. But I’m proud that the novels seem to pass muster with serious scholars. This spring I was invited to deliver the commencement address to the classics department at UC Berkeley and that was a great honor for me. I posted the speech on my Web site, www.stevensaylor.com.
texasmonthly.com: You wrote that you were disappointed in the movie Gladiator because of its inaccuracy. What are some common misconceptions people have about ancient Rome?
SS: History will always be mangled to fit the story-telling aims of Hollywood. But why can’t they get the visuals right? If I could change one thing about movies set in ancient Rome, it would be the look of the city. Invariably the moviemakers show Rome as a sterile landscape of white marble, when in fact it was riotously colorful, with tinted washes on the walls and the statues painted in lifelike colors. Rome probably looked more like a colorful Mexican village than like white-on-white Washington, D.C.
texasmonthly.com: You would like to see your series on the big screen. Are you concerned that Hollywood will compromise the integrity of your work?
SS: I believe it was Donald Westlake who once quipped to Elmore Leonard about the whole business of selling movie rights: “The novels are ours. Everything else is virgins in the volcano.” Occasionally a moviemaker truly does justice to a novel—that seems to have happened with Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring—but it’s such a rare occurrence that you certainly can’t expect it.
texasmonthly.com: Are there other historical time periods you would like to pursue at some point?
SS: I took a departure from the Roman series a couple of years ago and wrote a novel called A Twist at the End, set in Austin in 1885, about America’s first recorded serial killings—the rampages of the so-called “Servant Girl Annihilators.” I put O. Henry in the book (he was living in Austin at the time). I discovered some remarkable lost history from that era. Did you know that the big issue in the 1885 Texas legislature was a bill to establish radical affirmative action for women? I was afraid, when I set out to write A Twist at the End, that Austin history would seem a bit cramped and small after dealing with Rome, but what I discovered was quite the opposite.
texasmonthly.com: What is in store for your readers in the near future? Another installment in the Roma Sub Rosa series?
SS: The next novel in the series will take Gordianus to Alexandria in Egypt just as Caesar is arriving there for his fateful first encounter with Cleopatra. Juicy stuff! But my next published novel will be Have You Seen Dawn?, coming from Simon & Schuster in February 2003. It’s another Texas book, set in a small town very much like Goldthwaite, where I grew up. A young woman returns from her new home in California to visit her grandmother and finds that a high school girl is missing. That night she sees a flashlight in the field outside her grandmother’s house—and the book gets very spooky, very fast. Have You Seen Dawn? is my bow to the masters of contemporary suspense, like Mary Higgins Clark and Ruth Rendell. Will readers follow me from ancient Rome to a small town in Texas? I promise the trip will not be boring.