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Historical Mysteries in Ancient Rome - Steve Saylor Author Interview

"Crossing the Rubicon" by Ellen Healy

When a childhood interest turns into a life-long fascination with ancient Rome, the results are entertainment of the first order. Steven Saylor recreates the turbulent times of the end of the Roman Republic, bringing back to life such historical figures as Cicero, Pompey, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. He has written six novels and one collection of short stories in his Roma Sub Rosa historical mystery series, featuring his hero, Gordianus the Finder.

In his latest novel, "Rubicon", Gordianus must investigate the murder of Pompey's cousin, Numerius, in Gordianus' own garden. He is drawn into the chaos of the impending Civil War, as Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon to confront Pompey's troops at the Battle of Brundisium.
 
MysteryNet: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main character, Gordianus the Finder?
 
Saylor: Gordianus was introduced in "Roman Blood" back in 1991 as the young "Finder" sought out by a wet-behind-the-ears lawyer named Cicero to help him uncover the truth behind his first big murder case. Since then, in the six novels and several short stories in the "Roma Sub Rosa" series, Gordianus has witnessed the Spartacus slave revolt, the rise and fall of Cicero's political career, the decadent "lost generation" of the erotic poet Catullus and his lover Lesbia, the collapse of the Roman Republic, and now, in his latest novel, "Rubicon", the onset of all-out civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. He's also collected a ragtag family along the way, marrying his Jewish-Egyptian concubine, Bethesda, having a daughter with her (Gordiana, or Diana for short) and adopting a couple of sons. Something in his character drives him to find the truth, no matter what the cost. He's so successful at this that in a world of divine superstition, there are those who think the gods have given him some power that compels others to reveal their secrets to him -- not a bad attribute for a sleuth.
 
MysteryNet: You've said you had wanted to be an author since childhood, and you obviously love writing, as is evident in how easily readable your novels are. With your extensive background knowledge of ancient Roman history, do you find it easier or more difficult to do research for each novel? Have you found extra trivia that draws you in a different direction than your original idea?
 
Saylor: After ten years of researching and writing about ancient Rome full-time, I am able to spend less time doing the broad background research for each novel, but there's still a great deal of highly focussed research about the particular incident, locale and cast of historical characters involved in the story. There has been a bit of a change in the series, I think, with the latest two, "Rubicon" and the forthcoming "Last Seen in Massilia". Whereas the previous novels were largely about actual trials and political intrigue, now the politics and the courtroom dramas are all over, because the Roman world has descended into the chaos of civil war. Now there's more large-scale action -- sea battles, cities under siege, hair-breadth escapes -- and the mystery and intrigue spring from espionage and counter-intelligence. But, of course, there are still the murders -- always the murders, which drive the plot and lead to the uncovering of everyone's secrets.
 
MysteryNet: Gordianus is aging, but you've stated that he has good genes and will survive a while longer. Can you give us a little hint of what's going to happen in the next Roma Sub Rosa book, "Last Seen in Massilia", scheduled for release in the fall of 2000? Will his family play a prominent role in the book, or do you see Diana as being the logical successor to Gordianus in future novels?
 
Saylor: In "Last Seen in Massilia", Gordianus receives an anonymous message informing him of the death of his son, Meto, who's been acting as double agent for Caesar. Is Meto really dead? Gordianus has to know, so he goes to the besieged seaport of Massilia (modern-day Marseilles), where Meto was last see. Despite a blockade, he manages to get inside the city walls and finds himself drawn into all kinds of intrigue. When he witnesses the fall of a young woman from a precipice called the Sacrifice Rock -- was she pushed or did she jump? -- the plot begins to thicken.

I think of "Last Seen in Massilia" as my Casablanca or Algiers book. It's wartime and Gordianus finds himself far from home, trapped in a city under siege, submerged in an exotic, claustrophobic, hothouse atmosphere populated by a cast of desperate, treacherous, sometimes bizarre characters. The theme is deceptive appearances. Nothing is what is appears to be. No one can be trusted.

So, to your query about family, family ties are what seem to drive Gordianus as he gets older. In this case, it's his concern for his missing son. As for his daughter, Diana, I do suspect that she is his natural heir as far as sleuthing goes, and I could see her being the one to eventually take over the family business. It would be a challenge for a woman to play the role of "Finder" in ancient Rome, but I suspect Diana might be up for it, especially with her husband, Davus, who could play brawn to her brains. I have no concrete plans for her future role, but we'll see.
 
MysteryNet: For a change of time and place, your next novel, "A Twist at the End", is about O.Henry, and is being released in April 2000. Please take us back to your Texas roots and tell us a little of how you were inspired to write this story.
 
Saylor: I grew up in a very small town called Goldthwaite in central Texas. I majored in history at the University of Texas at Austin, then moved to San Francisco and later to Berkeley. But my Texas roots never stopped calling me back, both to my little hometown and especially to Austin. I've returned there year after year, especially in the summers. Despite the infamous heat and humidity, I love the outdoor life there, swimming in cold springs, boating on Lake Travis, cycling in the hill country.

Then one summer, shortly after my first novel, "Roman Blood", came out, back around 1991, I was in Austin during a rainy spell and couldn't go out much, so I found myself looking through a coffee table book called "Austin Illustrated" and came upon a brief reference to a series of brutal murders that had terrorized the city back in 1885. Serial murders? In Austin? In 1885? I was intrigued, and went to the Austin History Center to search the microfiche of old newspapers. When I came upon the headline for the first murder -- "Bloody Work!" -- I was hooked.

Researching the crimes -- which the young O.Henry, who was living in Austin at the time, dubbed the work of the "Servant Girl Annihilators" -- became a bit of an obsession, and I began to think about making a novel out of the story. The story just kept getting bigger and bigger the more I researched it, because the trials that resulted involved not just murder, but big-time politicians, prostitution, police brutality-- scandals that blew the lid off 1885 Austin,Texas. Researching those murders was sort of like lighting the fuse to a box of fireworks. The result, all these years later, is "A Twist at the End", in which O.Henry himself is the major protagonist. The book is a kind of psychological return to my heartland, to the place and the past that made me.
 
MysteryNet: What would surprise people about you if they met you for the first time?
 
Saylor: Readers used to remark that I was younger than they expected ... but I get that reaction less often nowadays -- time and more gray hair has taken care of that! Others who know I'm from Texas tell me they're surprised that I seem to have no Texas accent, although it does tend to come out a bit when I spend time in Austin.
 
MysteryNet: Final question: Is there any update on Gordianus going to Hollywood?
 
Saylor: Film rights to "Arms of Nemesis" were sold to United Artists a few years back. Donald Westlake wrote two drafts of a screenplay, and that's as far as it's gone. I'm still hopeful that we'll eventually see a comeback of the Roman epic movie that could sweep Gordianus onto the big screen. But it's not something I worry about. My own writing is what matters to me. As Westlake once told Elmore Leonard: "The books are ours. Everything else is virgins in the volcano."

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Interviewer Bio:
Ellen Healy is a former library assistant who is living her dream of working with a mystery bookstore. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two teenage sons and her books.