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Roman Holiday: A Chat with Steven Saylor

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Jun 30, 2005
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The mystery genre is a multi-faceted one given to a certain fascination with the series format. Writers with specialized interests sharpen their pen nibs and jot out not just one-off novels -- that would be a waste of good central characters -- but entire series of books, with an emphasis on clever plotting, macabre humor, and social subtext. The result is a literary field crackling with sub-genres that flourish in all directions: there are mystery novel series that focus on tough, career-minded women detectives, or gay male gumshoes; there are series set in the past and feature private investigators of color, the better to explore issues of race and examine America’s cultural history; there are hard-boiled science fiction series that take on the possibility of alien crimes and futuristic forensic technologies; there are even mystery series in which the sleuths are domestic cats, leading secret double lives, purring by day and prying by night.

One of the more instantly gripping sub-genres of the tradition are the Roman mystery series, of which there are a couple, most famously Steven Saylor’s "Roma Sub Rosa" novels. "Roma Sub Rosa" -- which, in translation, more or less means "A Secret history of Rome" -- takes place over several decades in Ancient Rome, specifically the years leading up to Rome’s conversion from Republic to Empire. Saylor is meticulous in his research, delighting in his descriptions of everyday life among the ancient Romans, and he frames his stories within historical events, sometimes sourcing the mysteries themselves in actual happenings, as in the series’ first novel, "Roman Blood." "Roma Sub Rosa" consists of nine novels (so far) and two collections of short stories, the second of which was only recently published. All of Saylor’s Roman mysteries are narrated by a fellow named Gordianus -- known as "The Finder" for his ability to track, deduce, and piece together clues and solve puzzling crimes -- and as Saylor follows his narrator through about four decades of murder and mystery, he allows Gordianus’ life to develop in all the ways you might expect. The Roman sleuth marries; he has children; he travels the ancient world; he falls on hard times and survives the dangers of political instability; he ages.

The new collection of short stories, "A Gladiator Dies Only Once," takes advantage of the shorter format to fill in stretches of blank history between novels and even, as Saylor explains in the EDGE interview, takes the opportunity to address a possible error in the series’ acclaimed historical accuracy. I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Saylor for another publication a couple of years ago, and he was gracious in agreeing to a chat for EDGEBoston one recent afternoon.

EDGEBoston: There’s a periodic fascination with Rome that’s in full swing once again. Ancient Rome is the subject of big movies like "Gladiator"; there’s the big mini-series "Empire" showing in television this month; and, of course, there are your books. What’s up with that?

Steven Saylor: It never goes away completely. We’re always fascinated -- obviously, there’s some connection to the fact that America is an empire that keeps people interested. I think it’s one of the reasons that the British and the Germans were so interested in Ancient Rome, and translated so much of the work of ancient authors. They were looking for some sort of precedent for their empires.

So as we look back, the 1950s was the first big wave of American popular interest in Rome. When I was a child, Hollywood made all those movies about the early Christians being eaten by lions. Our interest is much more secular now, even if our current leaders think of America as a Christian empire fighting the heathens.

EDGE: Last time we spoke, you were thinking about a book that would involve Gordianus in events surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar. Where are you with that book now?

Steven Saylor: Not quite there. The most recent novel ["The Judgment Of Caesar"] followed Caesar to Egypt. Right now, Gordianus is on hiatus. I think he has some role to play in the assassination of Julius Caesar, but I don’t know which side he’ll be on, what his reaction will be… I’ll have to mull that over for a couple of years, probably.

Right now, I’m working on "Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome." That’s going to be my big epic, a James Michener-esque, multi-generational saga about the first 1000 years of Roman history. Which only gets us up to Julius Caesar, actually.

EDGE: How long do you think it will be until "Roma" appears on the bookshelves?

Steven Saylor: Well, the earliest would be late 2006. More likely, 2007. I won’t finish it earlier than the end of this year, 2005. Then the publisher likes about a year’s lead time.

EDGE: That’s still a short window for such a huge undertaking.

Steven Saylor: I’ve been working on it for quite a while now. I did a very thorough outline, which has really helped me to write the book. It was a 150-page synopsis, actually, and now that I’m writing the actual prose I never get writers’ block because all of the scenes are there, I’m just fleshing them out.

EDGE: With regards to the new book of Gordianus short stories , each of the nine stories collected in "A Gladiator Dies Only Once" was published previously, in various anthologies. As you’re writing the short stories, are you looking at the time-line of Roman history and Gordiauns’ fictional life within that historic framework, and saying to yourself, "There’s an interesting hole I need to plug in Gordianus’ life… There’s an interesting historical development I could fold into a story… That’s a great story idea but I can’t use it because it would conflict with other things I’ve already done"?

Steven Saylor: I started to do the short stories because I admire the sort of authors who write novels and who also write short stories. The short stories provided a great way to fill the gaps, both chronologically and also in terms of the subject matter. In the short stories in the book I got to deal with gladiator fights, which I’ve never really done in the novels; I got to deal with chariot races, which I never did in the novels; and I got to deal with Lucullus, who shows up in the last story, "The Cherries of Lucullus." Also, "The Cherries of Lucullus" was a story that I really wanted to write, because one of the few gaffes that I’ve been informed about in my historical research involves the introduction of cherries to Rome. I have a wide readership around the world now, and I get emails if I make any mistake. It took several years before a German reader, Stefan Cramme -- he runs a website [www.hist-rom.de] -- told me that in "Roman Blood" I mention cherries, and the book is set in about 80 BC -- and actually, cherries didn’t appear in Rome until about ten years later. Of course, I was mortified that I’d made such an error! So, I wanted to write a story that would include the introduction of cherries into Rome.

EDGE: The new book also includes a story about the introduction of cats into Rome. They didn’t have cats?

Steven Saylor: Well, we don’t quite know when cats started showing up, but there don’t seem to be any cats mentioned until about the time of Gordianus. Previously, cats were worshipped in Egypt, and they probably originated in Africa. It took them a while to work their way up to Rome. The first cats in Rome arrived on board ships, of course, and the people in Rome didn’t like them very much. They had dogs already, but the first cats were not well liked in Rome.

EDGE: You’re regarded as such an authority on ancient Roman life that you were recently featured on The History Channel as part of a program about ancient Roman crime solving techniques. How did that come about?

Steven Saylor: The producers of a series called "City Confidential," a true-crime series centering on American cities, wanted to do something historical. The first subject they wanted to do was Ancient Rome. They were doing interviews in Austin, so they flew me in, and the interviews were done at, I believe, the Red Lion Inn, which was close to the airport. And they put a blue screen behind me, and I think they filled it in with images of the Coliseum or something. It’s hard to become inspired when you’re sitting in a hotel room with those lights on you.

EDGE: With this latest resurgence in the Roman Empire, has Hollywood come calling about Gordianus?

Steven Saylor: Hollywood has kind of nibbled. In order to get a movie to come about, you’ve got to have a major star who wants to do it. It costs so much money, it’s such a huge investment of so many people’s energy… so many projects fall apart along the way. It’s very difficult for a movie to actually get made. So I’m looking for something to happen, but… not yet.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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