Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Guest Post: Interview with author Ruth Downie


Apologies to subscribers for the onslaught of slightly odd posts yesterday. I've been doing some minor redesign on the site, trying to make it easier to navigate, and I nicked Billie Doux's excellent idea of back-dating some posts to 2000 so that they can stand as 'homepages' for my regular series, as it were. I've also put a few adverts on the site, which I hope are not too instrusive.

Today's post is a guest post by Hasan Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem, and is an interview with author Ruth Downie. Ruth writes a series of Roman-set 'detective' novels about army physician Gaius Petreius Ruso, and the fourth, Ruso and the River of Darkness in the UK and Australia or Caveat Emptor in the US and Canada, has just been released. I'll be reviewing Caveat Emptor on Thursday but in the meantime, I'll hand you over to Hasan.


What was the key inspiration that led you to write stories based in an historical setting?

The usual advice is to ‘write what you know,’ but when I began to write I was spending most of my time rushing between a part-time job and looking after small children. Writing was a way to escape, so I was on the lookout for a story as far from my own life as possible.

We were on a family visit to Hadrian’s Wall when I read that the Roman troops ‘were not allowed to marry the local women, but were allowed to have relationships with them’. This early example of the military having their cake and eating it set me wondering what life must have been like for those two very different communities, Roman and native, occupier and occupied, living side by side.


The historical sleuth genre is becoming increasingly popular, what do you think is the explanation for this?

My first thought here is that the aftermath of a serious crime now involves a crowd of professionals and a lot of technology.  There isn’t much room for the amateur sleuth to get past the yellow police tape and the white paper suits – which narrows down the crime writer’s choice of protagonist.

Historical fiction can take us back beyond the development of a professional police force, to a time when an enthusiastic amateur from a different walk of life might realistically have stood a chance of solving a mystery.  So I wonder if the breadth of scope is part of the appeal.

Also, since ‘history’ in general is enjoying a revival in popular culture at the moment, you could say that the detective story is a useful vessel in which to travel through time.


Were the writings of Conan-Doyle or Edgar Allan Poe influential in your development of your Ruso Series?

Anyone working in the detective/mystery genre owes a debt to the writers who pioneered the form, but it’s so long since I read any Poe that his influence must be well buried!

As for Conan Doyle – Ruso is certainly no Holmes but there’s definitely a structural inheritance.  The partner as a sounding-board for the detective’s ideas; the idea that a mystery can be solved by careful observation and deductive reasoning; the lurking existence of a powerful enemy across several episodes  – and come to think of it, the ‘two gentlemen and the housekeeper’ setup in the first Ruso book – they’re all there in Conan Doyle.


It is well known that Sherlock Holmes was based on Dr Joseph Bell, a Lecturer in Medicine who mentored Conan-Doyle. Is Gaius Petreius Ruso based on anyone in particular?

No.  I never find it helps to have real people in mind when I write, because they tend to get in the way.

Much of writing – the way I do it, at least - seems to be about beating one’s head against a dead end until a useful idea falls into place. Ruso sprang from something else I was trying to write, where the main character embodied the tensions of the time by having a Roman father and a British mother.  I can’t believe how long it took me to realise that the parents, who could actually move about and speak to each other, were much more interesting than the memory of them in the son’s head.


Can you describe some of the historical research that goes into your books?

It’s just as well publishers have deadlines, because without them the books would never get written: I’d be too happy doing the research. I like to wander around the locations of the books, visiting museums and taking far too many photos. Often the setting dictates part of the plot:  once I’d seen the maze of tunnels and staircases and corridors beneath the amphitheatre seating in Nimes, it was obvious that Ruso had to chase somebody around them.

Back at home, there’s plenty of written evidence to explore but it’s patchy. The Romans left us everything from official histories and epic poems to tombstones, election slogans and rude graffiti,   but Britain only seems to feature in the histories when somebody important was here.  We have very little idea of what was going on here at the start of Hadrian’s reign, except that the Army had to deal with some sort of trouble.

Since the Britons themselves left no written records, the field is open to speculation – and to archaeology. I have to confess something of an obsession here. It’s not strictly necessary, for the sake of the novels, to spend several weeks of each summer covered in mud and suncream while attempting to scrape out the remains of a Roman sheep farm from a Northamptonshire hillside.  It is, however, enormous fun. And perhaps it serves as a reminder that most of our ancestors were not famous generals or politicians but ordinary people, making a living as best they could.

On the subject of making a living, I did have a couple of characters who were obliged to tread grapes. In the interests of authenticity, and probably because I was stuck with the plot, I put a bunch of grapes in a washing-up bowl and tried it. Grapes are very slimy.



Some of the most fascinating aspects of your books are the descriptions of the interactions between Romans and the native Britons. Are the dynamics of these accounts congruent with the historical record?

It’s surprising how little the native Britons figure in the Army letters that have been unearthed at Vindolanda. Just about the only mention calls them ‘Brittunculi’, which translates as something like ‘wretched little Brits’. One gets the impression that unless the natives needed suppressing or taxing, the Army was largely preoccupied with its own business. However, the way that small settlements sprang up outside the forts suggests that there was plenty of trade going on with individual soldiers, and occasionally we find native wives and families mentioned on tombstones.

There must have been serious tensions, though.  A legion was an expensive unit to fund, and the fact that three of them were stationed here for much of the occupation suggests the Britons could not be trusted to run their own affairs.

Finally – and I think this is what makes the period really interesting - the Britons, who were split into various tribes, couldn’t agree amongst themselves. For instance, Tacitus tells us that Caratacus’s resistance to Rome finally ended when he fled to the queen of a northern tribe for sanctuary - and was promptly arrested and handed over. That same queen also fought a civil war against her own husband.

There’s archaeological evidence for division, too. In the south, many of the tribes seem to have been keen to adopt imported fashions and move out of their traditional roundhouses. Further north, there’s no sign of the locals building themselves smart new Roman-style villas. They had a huge wall put up by the Army instead, with defensive ditches on both sides. I think that’s a fair hint that not everyone was clamouring to be part of the Empire.


Cases from the legal career of Marcus Tullius Cicero are precious surviving glimpses of Roman investigative processes. Have these and similar accounts been influential in crafting the structure of your stories?

Someone once described the story of Cicero’s ‘Cluentius’ case to me as being ‘worthy of the plot of Dynasty’ – and indeed it is. His speeches are great examples of how to sway a jury (including all sorts of hearsay and insinuation that would be totally inadmissible today) but not many people would be wealthy or influential enough to have such a lawyer on their side. That was if they ever got to court in the first place.

We don’t know what the ‘grassroots’ legal system was for ordinary people in Britain, where most of my stories are set, but if it was anything like Rome, there was no state prosecution service.  It was up to the victim, or someone acting on their behalf, to bring a case. It’s widely believed that Roman citizens could appeal to the Emperor (as St. Paul did) but if you were a common-or-garden Briton, that wasn’t open to you either.  You might try complaining to the authorities, or your tribal leaders, or the local centurion, but you would have to wait at least 1400 years for the police to arrive. So a private citizen like Ruso might just feel moved enough by injustice to want to do something about it. As for the Cluentius case– it’s a marvellous tale of sex, murder and family betrayal, but I haven’t yet figured out a way to fit it all into one book.


What advice do you have for aspiring fiction writers?

Find friends who write, and encourage each other.  Write about what fascinates you, and be prepared to rewrite. Don’t give up.



What is a memorable site from antiquity which you have visited?

Pompeii and Herculaneum are the most evocative sites, but my favourite remains the unostentatious Northamptonshire sheep farm, because I’ve been part of the team that’s uncovered it.  (www.whitehallvilla.co.uk)


Your book is available in hard copy, audio and electronic edition. As an author, do you feel it is important to maximise the audience for your work through these different media?

To be honest an author has very little control over this sort of thing, but I’m delighted that there are now several options for people who don’t find printed books practical. I also think it’s important that readers can access books in whatever way they find easiest. There are so many competing demands on people’s time, and whilst hardcore readers will always hunt out a book, others will simply give up and do something else instead. And that’s a shame.

Many thanks to both Hasan and Ruth! I'll be back with my review of Caveat Emptor on Thursday.

8 comments:

  1. Many thanks for the guest post opportunity Juliette! I really enjoyed doing this interview, especially asking Ruth about how she researches her books, as well as the Sherlock and Cicero influences.

    I also thought it was important to include that graphic because her books have such different titles across the US and UK!

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

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  2. Yes, it's strange how much they vary isn't it?! I had tried to include some amazon links to both - didn't work but I'll try again later.

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  3. I love Hasan and his blog and I ADORE Ruth Downe's books (already read the latest one because I couldn't wait and I'd pre-ordered it a while ago). So imagine my joy at seeing both in one place! :-)

    Great interview, Hasan. Also, I loved the bit about how changing the focus made everything fall into place with Russo. Will there be more books in the series? If not, more books set in the ancient world? (I hope...)

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  4. I haven't read one of these books, but I'm thinking I might have a go now...

    I have to say, though, that the title changes between the UK and US versions surprise me. I'm not surprised that there are changes -- this often occurs -- but that the change manifests itself as the US editions having Latin titles whilst the UK editions have far less interesting, Harry Potter-esque titles. I would have expected that the UK audience, by dint of history (amply covered in this blog), would have been more able to handle the Latin titles, whilst the American audience would have been given the dumbed-down versions, which is more typically the case (as in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone).

    Either I'm just being a gratuitously anti-American snob (not an unknown condition for me), or something else is going on. Any thoughts?

    (By the way, nice photo in the top left!)

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  5. Thanks! :) I love playing on windy beaches...

    The title difference is certainly unusually severe - perhaps the American editor wanted something shorter and punchier? Medicus is a lot sharper than Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, and it sounds more serious as well, so perhaps that's how it started - the American editor wanted a more serious vibe, the British editor a more comical one.

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  6. That's an interesting point about the titles. These "X and the Y" titles seem to be very popular in Britain, though. Apart from the obvious Harry Potter books, on the mystery side you've got Michael Pearce's Mamur Zapt stories, Michael Bond's Monsieur Pamplemousse books, Peter Lovesey's Bertie mysteries. That's just off the top of my head from my own library. There must be more.

    I suppose it makes sense from a marketing perspective. Saves having to put "A Detective X Mystery" on the cover.

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  7. Ruth has got in touch to say that yes, the titles are different because the American editor wanted a serious vibe, the British editor wanted a comic one. And there will be two books!

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  8. Sorry, that should say two more books!

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