You couldn't do V Days of Rome without Sophia McDougall, the author of Romanitas and Rome Burning. Ms. McDougall's books have both been finalists for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and have been re-issued in a new edition prior to the release of Savage City this May.
Rather inauspiciously, Ms. McDougall spoke with us on the Ides of March...
SM: I went to Rome in my impressionable youth and it duly made an impression - I fell in love with it. Even though I was studying the Greeks at the time, I guess the Romans felt closer to who we are. Every global superpower that’s come since has modelled itself on Rome in some way - has seen something of itself in Rome. It was difficult to find an image for the cover of Romanitas - or even a title - because there are so few images left that are distinctively Rome and not something else. All the other cultures have stolen them. I think “eagle” – it could be Russian or American or German. Even for EasterCon, the Illustrious symbol is an Eagle - that’s always going to come back to Rome – you don’t even think about it.
So Rome, it’s because it’s a mirror of every Western civilisation. And not only Western civilisation – every civilisation that’s defined itself as modern.
Also, Rome’s a very grand and beautiful backdrop to tell any story. It is intrinsically very dangerous, the stakes are high before you even start. The characters are in danger before anything even happens. I have characters who are slaves - so starting with a deck very much stacked against them. But I find it interesting to have these characters, like Varius, who is upper middle class and as he says “I am a Roman Citizen” which is a line I pinched from my Latin A-Levels and Cicero. Romans had all these rights - that’s sort of the model for subsequent civilisations, the Twelve Tables is at the beginning of a line leading to America’s Bill of Rights - but these rights could always be whisked away at a moment’s notice.
The line comes from the context of it really, really not working. The case of the Fifth Verrine is Cicero prosecuting a corrupt governor of Sicily. This citizen had tried to expose him and he ended up being crucified on the shore so so he could see Italy across the strait of Sicily. “Let him die within sight of justice and freedom!” All the while he was shouting, “I am a Roman citizen… Civis Romanus sum.” Which should never be ignored anywhere, but, yes… it was. That’s the point. In theory, you can say “I am a Roman citizen” and things should go right, but in practice, they don’t necessarily.
So, Rome made for a dangerous, dramatic world. At the same time, also a world that wasn’t a full dystopia. It wasn’t about everything being awful. I’ve been thinking lately about sci-fi and fantasy and various kinds of speculative fiction premises. The ones that I really don’t like – and you’ve seen the rant I did about the sci-fi elements in Cloud Atlas – if the answer to your “what if” question is just “it would be bad” then something’s not right. Rome is sort of a horrible world, but it’s a world of great achievements and massive potential. So that’s “why Rome”.
PK: Why an alternate history at all – as opposed to creating your own world or writing historical fiction? An alternate history would seem to be the tough middle ground between the two.
SM: It didn’t strike me that way at the time. Why alternative as opposed to historical fiction? It is because you can control everything, and the outcome is not known to the reader in advance. I can change the entire world, I can make my characters and events massively, historically significant and it’s as unclear to the reader as to the character where things are going and what’s going to happen. In a way, straight historical fiction strikes me as more distancing – you can never fully share the shock when you read a novel where Vesuvius erupts or the Arch-Duke of Austria-Hungary gets shot . In alternative history, you can. You’re not going, “Oh, Julius Caesar, making plans post the Ides of March… maybe not going to work out so well.” You’re not limited in that way. But you still maintain this sense of closeness to our world - you can see the connections. I was talking earlier about the ways in which Rome was a mirror, I wanted that. I wanted it to feel as familiar as it felt strange.
PK: And the difficult part… you say can do everything you want, but I can only imagine that with every alternate history there are 10,000 amateur historians sharpening their knives.
There is one quasi-deliberate mistake. A mistake that was a mistake, but I spotted it in time, and then chose to keep it there. I’ve been waiting for bated breath for someone to pick on me, and so far it hasn’t happened.
I have the palace being called Domus Aurea – which is obviously wrong. That was Nero’s name for his palace and that palace rather famously got destroyed. The palace should be called Domus Augustana, but I just like Domus Aurea – the Golden House – so much. It sounds so poetic and it is a lovely parallel to the White House.
“The Golden House.” That sums up so much about the grandeur and awfulness of Rome.
PK: And what about the additional, supernatural element?
SM: There are two answers to that. There’s one blunt, short, completely truthful answer. There’s also one longer answer, also true, but it’s the truth in a slightly more flattering light.
First answer – the short, completely true answer: I just wanted to. I thought it would be cool. I like that sort of thing, and I wanted to do it.
I thought it’d be fun to play with a character who had supernatural abilities. I always wanted to know more about what it would feel like to be able to do these things.
The longer, more flattering to me, answer is that the Romans were very superstitious. They had Sibyls and Oracles and I wanted to build that into the world. No one ever says “what about the supernatural elements in I, Claudius?”. It has supernatural prophecies that come true on the page. It has magical powers that are objectively real. No one ever calls I, Claudius fantasy – technically it is.
I also thought that deploying one major cheat on the characters’ part would allow me to maintain how formidable the opposition that they were facing really was. I wouldn’t be able to rely on the opposition being stupid or things being improbably easy – so this allows the characters to do things that they could do in no other way. It allows me to tell a story about extremely vulnerable, disenfranchised people who are up against an extraordinarily implacable set of enemies and a set of structures that are designed not to let them Pass Go. Yet, I can still have something happen rather than let them just die.
PK: What sort of safeguards do you have in place so that you maintain consistency within your own timeline?
SM: Most of it is in my head, actually. My memory for that kind of thing is generally good.
I wrote the timeline very early on, so I‘ve always had that to refer back to. That was something I was asked to do by my agent about 100 pages in. I had a general sense of what happened and how it wound up that way, but it was a bit daunting, having to rewrite two thousand years of world history over a weekend.
SM: I didn’t want Rome to have conquered the whole world. I felt like that would be a sterile, boring and unconvincing world. To some extent, having three main power blocks is probably already pushing it, but I thought they were interesting cultures to set against each other. Huge amounts of history going a very long way in all three.
The focus is very tightly in the characters’ heads. They’re not, on the whole, going around marveling at how strange everything is – everything to them is normal. As I said, I wanted everything to feel as normal as it felt strange. But putting Rome up against other cultures, you got to see it from another point of view.
Obviously the premise is modern Roman Empire, not so much modern Imperial Japanese empire, but I thought it would be another very interesting perspective on this world.
PK: Even with that – and maybe as a result of that narrow character focus – one of the interesting parts of Rome Burning is that some huge events are happening, but we don’t actually witness them first-hand.
SM: I do have two of my characters caught in a bombing at an arms factory, which blows up rather spectacularly!
Romanitas is very much a sort of bottom up view of the modern Roman Empire. It is slaves and fugitives and generally disenfranchised people. Rome Burning is much more top down, it is people who have some real power, and status and ability to travel, and the ability to shape events in a rather more direct way.
I go where the characters go and see what they can see. In the Rome Burning, they are making decisions and obviously find themselves in danger as a result of that… a lot.
They are still, despite the fact that they’re now much higher social position – or because they’re in a much higher social position – finding they’ve got to fight for their lives in ways they didn’t have to in Romanitas.
Rome Burning is so much about trying to avoid a war, that the front line is where the characters are. The front line is between the Romans and the Japanese – the Nionians. The peace talks are where those lines meet and where the confrontation’s happening.
[Rome Burning spoilers here – skip down a bit to stay safe!]
PK: There’s also an important new character introduced - Noriko.
SM: It is a little unclear who she is when she’s first introduced, but she is the Princess Imperial of Nionia.
PK: She’s also the third leg of the love triangle. Due to Marcus and Una’s very different backgrounds, it is almost inevitable that someone comes between them. But, when Noriko does, she’s … not a villain.
SM: I would’ve hated to do that. There’s a line in A Room of One’s Own – something like “What if Cleopatra and Octavia had been friends?” What I liked about writing this situation is that it’s in no way anyone’s fault. If it were, it would be so much simpler – there’d be more obvious ways out of it. But these are intelligent, mature people trying to do the best they can. Una and Noriko like and respect each other, which only makes it more painful for them both. And from Marcus’ point of view too, I think the fact that Noriko’s genuinely a good match for him and he almost has more in common with her than with Una makes his relationships with both women much more interesting. It wouldn’t say anything particularly impressive about Marcus and Una’s love for each other if Marcus just didn’t want to get with somebody evil. I think it would’ve just been appalling to introduce – on so many levels it would’ve been appalling to introduce - a Japanese princess as an evil femme fatale, thrust in-between my happy white couple. No, I’d never do that.
[Spoilers are over now – you can come back!]
PK: And the one hint that you’ve given away about Savage City is that... Una gets a haircut.
SM: I seem to really like the Significant Haircut trope, as TV Tropes has it. I’m not conscious of particularly liking it, but everyone gets one at some point. Marcus gets one in Romanitas. Lal has one before the story even starts – she’s got short hair, having cut it from long hair. By the end of the trilogy everyone has one.
PK: Are there any other hints can you give us about Savage City?
SM: Ethiopia ends up being quite important. Pretty much anyone who’s anyone winds up there. And if they’re not there, they’re in Egypt.
PK: You’re known for drawing sketches of your characters…at what point do you visualize them? Do you write first and then draw? Draw and then write?
SM: I mostly wrote them and then drew them. I guess I always knew, more or less, what they look like. I started drawing pictures initially - theoretically to illustrate what the costumes would look like.
Even though I don’t talk about it, I wanted to know what clothes they were wearing, so I’d be able to refer to fabrics and designs in passing, and make it sound more real. I didn’t want to stop and say, “he was wearing a mmm made of mmm” because you don’t do that – in the same way that you don’t go, “he was wearing jeans, which was a kind of blue canvas garment which originated from Nîmes”.
I was in France, researching where the characters go in the first book and I showed the drawings to my mum. She said, “aww, it is so sweet – just like when you used to draw pictures of princesses and write stories about them when you were seven.”
“It is not like that, this is very serious design!” Eventually I had to go, yes, it is exactly like when I used to draw pictures of princesses and write stories about them when I was seven.
So it started because of the costumes, but then I just kept doing it. After I finished Romanitas, it went to the next level because for a long time I had nothing to do – I was waiting for my editor to get back to me with notes. So my pictures got ever, ever more detailed. It finally became a ritual, after I’d finish each book, I’d spend a month crazily, obsessively drawing pictures.
PK: When the series first came out – it was from Orion, sold as, I’m not sure what to call it? Mystery? Commercial fiction? Fiction-fiction!?
SM: What my editor said at the time was that we’re not going to position this as historical fiction, we’re not going to position this as sci-fi - it is just a book. Which, to a large extent, is how I’ve always felt about it. I never not wanted it to be called any particular thing or actively wanted it to be called any particular thing. I just wanted to write it, I just wanted people to read it, I don’t much care how people define either themselves or the book. I just thought it’d be a nice story.
PK: And now the new edition is being aimed at a slightly different audience, coming from Gollancz.
SM: I don’t know if I’m being published as science-fiction or fantasy… I’m now checking to see if it says anywhere. “Fiction”. Yes. It is definitely fiction.
That was a question I’ve actually been asked. In the early days, when I’d tell people I was writing a book about the modern Roman Empire, and people’d go, “oh, is it fiction?”
It’s only just come out as sci-fi, so I’m waiting to see if anyone suddenly interprets it radically differently, so far I don’t think they have. It has meant that I’ve met many more sci-fi people, which is wonderful. I’ve found my people – people I can talk to about all these things, at last!
PK: What’s next?
SM: What’s next is definitely sci-fi. I am writing a children’s book called Mars Evacuees which is exactly what it sounds like. The world’s being colonised by aliens so the 11-year-old heroine and her various 11-year-old friends are evacuated to Mars, where they encounter aliens and flying, blue-eyed, American fish robots.
PK: Thank you very, very much for your time. Beware the Ides of... oh, forget it.
This interview was first published as part of Pornokitsch's V Days of Rome special, 5-8 April, 2011.