Thoughts of ancient Rome have always entertained me. When I was very young I was obsessed with the idea of Roman amphitheatres, that their open-air design could help carry the voice. At school, I remember reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and then Antony and Cleopatra and then wandering the teenage streets of Hobart thinking how different they must be to ancient Rome. But years later when I wandered the streets of the ancient Roman Forum, I realised how similar they were. The basic layout of buildings along a street is much the same and Hobart is full of Victorian architecture with all its overtures to Roman; the columns, the dance of curved and triangular window awnings.
In many ways, Elisabeth Storrs writing of the Etruscans takes us back another step, to a time when Rome itself was forming, at the one time defending and expanding itself.
So with the release of the third part of this triptych, let’s step back in time with a tale of ancient Rome and Elisabeth Storrs…
Has writing always been part of your life?
I always wanted to be a writer from a very early age and wrote short stories and poetry that was published in journals in my twenties but then ‘life got in the way.’ It wasn’t until I had my children that I realised I would never finish a novel unless I set aside time in my diary. And so I wrote for a couple of hours each week by hiring a school kid to babysit my boys. And from little things, big things grow. It’s amazing what you can achieve by slowly chipping away. It took years but I finally completed my first manuscript (which is now in a bottom drawer.) Eventually my writing time increased as my family grew older. Now I’ve been given the opportunity to write everyday – I love it. So much better than being a lawyer!
What was the first inkling you had of your early Roman series, especially Call to Juno? And how did it proceed from there.
I’ve always loved myths and legends and studied history and ‘dead’ languages at school and university. As a result, I read history books when I had the chance. Over fifteen years ago, I discovered a photo of a 6th century sarcophagus with a life size couple depicted lying together on their bed. The casket was unusual for that period because women were not usually commemorated in funerary art. Discovering the society that portrayed such tender affection led me to Etruria and the little known story of the siege between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii. From there the tale was born of a young Roman treaty bride, Caecilia, who is married against her will to an enemy nobleman, Vel Mastarna, to seal a truce. The world of the Etruscans has absorbed me ever since. It took ten years to write The Wedding Shroud (after three rewrites), 18 months to write The Golden Dice, and 12 months to finish Call to Juno (practice does help you write faster!)
That’s a sustained effort. When I first went to Europe in in the 80s, I remember seeing the Etruscan wall and gate in Perugia and being surprised beyond belief at the size and strength of it. They were a major civilisation. With your first idea for the series, how much planning had you done for the second and third instalments when you were writing the first part? And how much did the second and third parts evolve as you wrote them?
I originally wrote the entire plotline of Caecilia and Mastarna’s love story in one book but it was far too long so my agent suggested I split The Wedding Shroud in half. When I came to write the second book, The Golden Dice, I realised I needed to include a Roman viewpoint so I introduced Pinna, the tomb whore, who connives her way to become an army wife and meets and falls in love with Camillus, Rome’s greatest general. Creating the Etruscan unwed mother, Semni, allowed me to present the life of a commoner in those times. She becomes integral in ensuring the survival of the young heirs of the House of Mastarna. In Call to Juno, I wrote through the eyes of the repressed gay Roman soldier, Marcus, to enable readers to enter battles and political inner circles as it would have been unrealistic to have my female characters witness such scenes.
So it sounds like you write with a combination of fine planning and evolution. What are the main themes you wished to explore in this novel? And why?
Throughout the Tales of Ancient Rome saga, I explore the theme of tolerance vs prejudice through Caecilia’s struggle to deal with conflicting moralities between Roman and Etruscan societies. The fact bisexuality was the norm also intrigued me so I delved into that as well. The role of religion and superstition interested me given belief in divine power permeated all decisions in those ancient times. Fate vs free will is also a strong thread in the story arc as the idea of trying to control destiny is something I grapple with myself. Most important was my desire to explore the resilience and courage of women in surviving in a violent, masculine world.
At what point of the writing do you start to think of the structure, detail and character?
I am a plotter not a ‘pantser’. I structure a novel by using a colour coded card system to ensure there is a balance between the protagonists’ viewpoints, and to ensure I move the story effectively forward through them. I also develop the personalities of each character and write their back stories first but I often find they grow of their own accord. Giving them decision making abilities when placed in particular situations often results in additional layers of complexity for both the characters and the plotline. I like to begin a chapter with a visual detail often inspired by Etruscan art. After that I write a rough draft and then weave research through it.
Describe the environment(s) you write in? What do you need to evoke the Blarney?
I work in my family room at the kitchen table which is cluttered with papers even though I’m extremely organised in my mind. The house is quiet during the day but by the afternoon and evening I have to concentrate through the noise of family life. My husband often complains that I don’t return to the ‘present’ once I have escaped into my imagination. And he’s right!
You sound like Jane Austen, beavering away in the corner of the drawing room. What is your least favourite part of the writing process? And your favourite?
I find facing the blank page the most difficult. I struggle with my first drafts. After that I love the process of ‘embroidering’, refining and editing.
What major insight did you have into the writing process during this novel’s evolution?
You can start with a plan but you need to be flexible. As I said, characters make you diverge from the path. I also find research can result in the need to alter the content. More and more is being learned about the Etruscans which can conflict with my past conclusions and requires me to change details. In fact, I now recognise that historical novelists and historians both hypothesize although historians do this in a much more analytical way. I loved it when one archaeologist told me that she also had to use her imagination when piecing together pottery or statues with missing fragments.
What’s next on the horizon?
I’m writing a novel set in World War II Berlin and Moscow about the lost Trojan Treasure of Priam that was coveted by both Hitler and Stalin. It’s a big leap from classical times but I’m also going to include the story of the discovery of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann, a pioneering archaeologist and gold seeker.
When I first went to Pompeii, I remember walking down the street to the bar and the brothel and the theatre and the sports arena and thinking, life hasn’t really changed. Are we that different to the characters of your time?
Customs, laws and clothes might change but the stuff of life remains universal. Emotions, motivations and loyalties transcend eras. I write about experiences which I believe ancient people encountered in the same way as do modern ones– love with all its facets, duty in all its complexity; greed, envy, pride and betrayal; hatred, fear, courage and ambition. And the Etruscans were extremely liberal and pleasure seeking. I’m sure they would love today’s hedonistic culture.
Four unforgettable characters are tested during a war between Rome and Etruscan Veii.
Caecilia has long been torn between her birthplace of Rome and her adopted city of Veii. Yet faced with mounting danger to her husband, children, and Etruscan freedoms, will her call to destroy Rome succeed?
Pinna has clawed her way from prostitute to the concubine of the Roman general Camillus. Deeply in love, can she exert her own power to survive the threat of exposure by those who know her sordid past?
Semni, a servant, seeks forgiveness for a past betrayal. Will she redeem herself so she can marry the man she loves?
Marcus, a Roman tribune, is tormented by unrequited love for another soldier. Can he find strength to choose between his cousin Caecilia and his fidelity to Rome?
Who will overcome the treachery of mortals and gods?
“An elegant, impeccably researched exploration of early Rome and their lesser known enemies, the Etruscans. The torments of war, love, family, and faith are explored by narrators on both sides of the conflict as their cities rush toward a shattering, heart-wrenching show-down. Elisabeth Storrs weaves a wonderful tale!”
Kate Quinn, author of The Empress of Rome Saga