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PK Interview: Sophia McDougall (Part 2)

In the first part of our interview with Sophia McDougall, we talked about the appeal of Rome and the dangers of alternate history. In this portion, we get down into the detail with discussion of Rome Burning (re-issued next week!) and Savage City (out in May!). (If you need a brief recap on Romanitas, our review is here. And if you want a sneaky preview of Rome Burning, we've a review of that too!)


Rome BurningPK: Romanitas is more geographically focused, but in Rome Burning, the characters are taking trains across Asia and seeing China and Japan. How did those other empires come about?

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.


Our interview with Ms. McDougall concludes on Friday. For further encouragement to start the series, we suggest our reviews of Romanitas or Rome Burning. The new editions of Romanitas and Rome Burning are out now, with Savage City, the conclusion to the trilogy, coming this May.