Monsters & Mullets: Caligula (1979)
8 Ways to Topple an Empire

PK Interview: Sophia McDougall (Part 3)

Previously, we discussed the timeless appeal of Rome and the epic scope of Rome Burning. In the final part of our interview with Sophia McDougall touches on how she visualizes her characters, genre labels and, perhaps most importantly, what she's working on now. 


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?

Pics.livejournal 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.


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.