October 2015. Andy Keen (AJK) asking the questions. Video and audio done by Darcy Farrant.
AJK: You’re not a Classicist by training. You did English – is that right?
LD: I did English Language and Literature as my degree, and I think that Classics and English are both equally important to me in what I enjoyed for study, and also in preparation for being a writer. In the Stone Age, in fact it wasn’t at a Grammar School, it was at a Direct Grant School, we did Latin, and we did Latin to O level, plus A Level if you wanted, and I wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge – I didn’t know the difference between them! You had to do a translation for Greek or Latin, whereas now you can go and read Classics without ever having studied either of those! Times were hard then… and there were only a few women’s colleges, so you had to be quite good at your translation paper, even though you might be very good at your main subject. So I actually went to A Level with my Latin, and then I got there to read English and found that they believed in looking at the fundamentals of the English language, so there we were: Aeneid Book 6 in Latin again! Fortunately it had been a set book for me before. So I have had a Classical education, I think you could say, and I also did Greek, though I was hopeless at it! But I can now read the road signs in Greece, so there was an advantage!
AJK: Having read your books, one of the things that strikes me most is the amount to which you get a sense of the dirt and the normal things going on, and the things which Cicero and Caesar don’t tell you about.
LD: No, and I think a lot of people who write novels want to show you that they’re Classically educated, and they go from the Caesar and Cicero down. My starting point is archaeology, and that’s because I had a Latin teacher who was interested in it, a long time ago before it was a subject anybody knew anything about. And because she made the Archaeological Society joint with the boys’ school next door – I have to tell the truth! – we in the girls’ school rushed to join, thinking how exciting it would be to go to a society that was the only one joint with the boys’ school! So I learnt a bit about archaeology because the boys didn’t want to know us really, and it stayed with me, and my starting point is what you find in the ground, which is as much about the cities, the streets, the baths, the houses of the ordinary people, although I do, of course, read the primary sources that are available, which means I have revisited Cicero and Caesar – especially the satirists I’ve read closely: Juvenal, Martial… and also sometimes the historians.
AJK: In addition to the normal people, you go into the machinations of the emperors, and I noticed that having spent quite a bit of time writing about times under Vespasian, you’re now writing under Domitian. How different is that, do you think? Is it better?
LD: It’s different, and politically, of course, it’s much worse, because he is a paranoid tyrant who is suspicious of everyone. I wrote twenty Falco novels set in the reign of Vespasian, and I had written a straight novel about Vespasian before, and he’s a good emperor. We start in a time of chaos, when he’s immediately becoming emperor, and we see him building a good sort of Rome. And then when I wanted to write a different series for a change, really, I decided to write about Falco’s daughter, which would be a different perspective, because she’s a woman, and she’s from Britain, so she’s seeing Rome as an outsider, and I didn’t want to write about her when she was too young, and didn’t know the job. I wanted her to be established, so it just seemed natural to move further forwards and into the reign of Domitian, which would be much darker, and would give a different flavour to it, and perhaps throw up different problems for her if and when she tangles with the bureaucracy, which she’s about to do in book five, so I’m looking forward to that!
AJK: It struck me that going into the time of Domitian gives you the opportunity to follow certain ideas, such as one thing in reading the most recent book that struck me was that things that were left behind after the eruption of Vesuvius take on their own extra interest value because of the nature of who is selling them. Do you find that in a way, you’re almost doing archaeology?
LD: I am. The key thing in the book is the chest in which a body is found, which a crime writer obviously has to do. It is very closely modelled on the famous burnt chest that was found at Herculaneum, which was in the recent exhibition at the British Museum, which I had anyway seen in the Naples Museum. So that’s the sort of key item that can start off an idea for a plot, and I was more interested, to be honest, in the chest itself than in the man who was found in it. It was quite late in the book when I decided who he was and who had killed him, because the chest itself seemed so iconic. I’m also interested, because I like antiques, and I was thinking how it would be that there would be stuff that nobody knew who owned it, or they did know, and it had been looted, and how would the Romans themselves have viewed it? There’s a sort of joke at an auction where people are almost saying, “Oh, Vesuvius stuff! It’s got its own premium on it! Oh no, that’s over now – we don’t really care that it’s part of the eruption… it carries no meaning anymore.” And I don’t know whether that’s true – I made it up – but that’s what novelists are allowed to do!
AJK: And I guess it’s not not true, and nobody can prove it’s not true!
LD: Nobody can prove either way, can they? Unless they find a text where somebody’s writing about it, and as we only have limited amounts of text… Of course, there are people who say that, when we unroll scrolls in the Villa of the Papyri, we’ll find lots of Latin texts we don’t have, but they won’t be about the eruption, of course, because that hadn’t happened!
AJK: Another thing that I wondered about was how much you feel constrained by having to write for a 21st century audience. Do you get problems with thinking, “These are people who owned slaves and had accepted views about women that were way away from what we accept now, and I’ve got to make these people sympathetic”?
LD: I suppose I find that somewhere in Roman society there will be people who are sympathetic. I see my job as partly showing how the Romans were very similar to us, and human nature never changes, so their motives for murder are going to be the same as everybody’s motives for murder, and also to show how they were different, and you picked up on slavery – the other thing that’s different, of course, is gladiators, and the slaughter of animals in the arena, which I have treated of, and didn’t enjoy very much. With slavery, my original way of depicting that was to just mention that they had slaves but not dwell on it at all, not exclaim at how horrible it was, not describe or discuss it very much, in order to show that they were part of the background, and that for most Romans, it was an accepted part of life. But then when I wrote my second Flavia Albia novel, I thought the time had come to address this head-on, and to go into what it was like to be a slave, and what problems there could be if you were a slave, but also the problems for people who owned them, and how they might or might not be comfortable. Falco is a horrible, useless slave-owner. His conscience won’t allow him to choose the right ones, because he’s too soft-hearted, and when he’s got them, he just doesn’t know how to run them. Albia’s boyfriend, if I can call him that, her loved one, owns a slave who is typically useless – he thinks he’s the clever slave of Greek comedy, but actually he’s a bit dim and vague and not terribly good, so I have a lot of fun showing how Faustus and Albia try to be kind to this lad, while making him useful, while trying to bring him on so that he’ll have some life of his own, and that’s going to be a running theme. As you say, it’s something that isn’t part of 21st century life, but that’s part of the interest, isn’t it? Otherwise I might just as well write contemporary novels if I’m just going to deal with everything as it is now.
AJK: Indeed. And finally, you’ve written about a book a year for over 20 years.
LD: Thirty years! My next one will be my thirtieth. I can’t believe it! I still feel like I’m starting out new.
AJK: How do you manage to do it?
LD: It’s my job! I have to write a book. I just get down and I do it. It’s like having homework. There is a long essay to be delivered… Interestingly, when I was at school, I was the person who ran down the corridor and pushed their essay into the pigeon-hole just as the teacher was coming to pick up her bundle, and I’m still exactly the same! I do it – I do a book a year, but I hand it in at midnight on the day it’s meant to be handed in! I’ve never changed. I just have to say, “Oh, I’m good with deadlines!”
AJK: Do you think if you did it earlier, it wouldn’t be as good?
LD: I don’t think I can do it earlier, and I wouldn’t dare to do it late in case I was in trouble.
AJK: It focuses the mind, though, doesn’t it?
LD: It does focus the mind. When it’s your job, a hundred thousand words a year, well, that’s just what you have to do. Writing a series makes it much easier, because a lot of the groundwork is already done, so it’s not as hard as if I’d written thirty completely new books with new characters and locations.
AJK: Thank you very much.
October 2015. Andy Keen (AJK) asking the questions. Video and audio done by Darcy Farrant.