Monday, July 2, 2018

Interview With Zara Altair

1)      Zara, perhaps I was biased in your favor by making you the author of the month. After all, I’ve just discovered the wonderful Ruth Downie and her Medicus series. And because of her, I’m inspired to write my own murder mystery set in the days of ancient Rome. But before I’d discovered Ruth, I discovered you and your Argolicus mystery series. For those out there who don’t know about this slice of time between the Roman Empire at its height and the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, the Ostrogoths, a parallel tribe to the Visigoths ruled in Italy after Rome was sacked in AD 476. Briefly explain to the readers what it was like being Argolicus, your detective, in Ravenna under the Ostrogoths.
Thanks for inviting me, Robert. You are right that the capital of Italy under Ostrogoths was Ravenna. Rome was a bubble believing in the old Roman Empire with a small population of around 20,000. Odoacer, the previous ruler had captured Ravenna. After Theodoric took Ravenna, theoretically in the name of the Emperor, now in Constantinople not Rome, he modeled everything on the Emperor’s seat in Constantinople. He built a palace, modeled on the palace in Constantinople, in Ravenna. King Theodoric and most of his courtiers adopted Roman dress, i.e. fine silks and richly adorned clothing.

Theodoric had lived 10 years from about eight to eighteen years of age. in Constantinople as a “hostage” at the Emperor’s palace, so he based his changes on real life experience.

Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast, in northeastern Italy, was situated to receive goods from all over the Mediterranean world. Food and water were plentiful. Theodoric created a massive building program to enrich northern Italy. Italians spoke Latin, but Latin was just beginning to evolve into the language we know today as Italian.

Theodoric instigated two sets of laws in Italy under his reign. Italians (Romans) lived under the old Roman codex. Ostrogoths, who received a third of everything although usually in taxes rather than land or property, lived under the ancient Ostrogoth code based on tribal fealty.

At the time of the Argolicus mysteries, circa 512 C.E., our hero has not been to Ravenna, yet. In the series, he does go to Ravenna filled with political intrigue, but that story is a number of stories away. As he solves mysteries, he is still confronted with the fact that murder was not a crime as we interpret it. Rich people who could afford legal proceedings could file a suit and hope for the best outcome. Usually families had to come to their own terms with what consequences they could apply to the perpetrator.
2)      First, what drew you to write mysteries set in post imperial Rome and secondly, why the period in the early 6th century under the Ostrogoths?
I love visiting Italy. In a phone conversation with my daughter who has lived in Italy twice, she said the one city I would like would be Ravenna. Then she started a long story about Theodoric, crossing the Danube, going to Milan, conquering Ravenna, and becoming “King.” She told the story of how the Emperor Justinian tried to eradicate all traces of the Ostrogoth rule. I wondered what it would be like to live then.

I went to Ravenna, where I met with several history professors at the Università di Bologna, Ravenna campus, who answered many questions, told me which libraries to visit, and showered me with over 30 kilos of books to mail home.

I started reading.

And then while I was doing research for her novel Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic I came across a letter in the Variae of Cassiodorus (iii, 46) which has puzzled scholars. Who better to solve the mystery than her hero Argolicus? And I wrote the first story The Used Virgin.  That’s how the mysteries started.
3)      I’d noticed since I received your first Argolicus novel, The Used Virgin, that every entry is quite short, about the length of short stories. Why are they so brief and are there any plans for a full-length Argolicus mystery?
Yes, they are short. I’m finishing the next mystery, The Vellum Scribe, After that, I have a longer, full-length novel in mind complete with multiple murders and subplots. Full tilt boogie novel.
4)      Argolicus actually existed. How was the real-life model different from your fictionalized version? How are they similar?
Great question, Robert, but I have no idea. Although he is mentioned by name in Cassiodorus’ Variae in official letters, we know little about him as a person. So his character, likes, dislikes, foibles, etc. all come out of my imagination. That includes his mixed heritage with a Roman father, also mentioned in the Variae, and an Ostrogoth mother from my imagination.
5)      Nikolaous is a Greek Goth but and he’s also Argolicus’ tutor and friend. What role does he play to your detective? Is he like Holmes’ Watson or is his function and identity more nuanced and original than that?
As a lifelong slave, Nikolaos is joined to Argolicus in ways it’s hard for us to imagine in our modern day. Rich Italians (Romans) bought tutors for their children. They were responsible for their complete education in subjects like Greek, mathematics, geography, and athletics. Tutors began as young men in their teens and remained in the household for life. Tutors from Greece were preferred because Greek was their native language. Like many tutors, Nikolaus becomes what we would call an administrative assistant when Argolicus became an adult.

As a slave, Nikolaus can go places and gather gossip unobtrusively and report back to Argolicus. Other slaves will gossip with him and reveal information they would not tell Argolicus.

I think some ways he is like Watson, and many archetypal sidekicks, in that he questions the protagonist. He also offers new perspectives that Argolicus may have missed. While Argolicus is learned and just, Nikolaos has a better grasp of reality and the everyday world.
6)      You’d decided to join some pretty good company, as Steven Saylor (Gordianus the Finder), Ruth Downie (Ruso, Medicus series) and the legendary Lindsey Davis and her Falco series are pretty much the gold standard for Roman detective fiction. Despite the much later time frame, what sets Argolicus apart from those other Roman detectives?
I visited the Brading Roman Villa years ago. In the shop I discovered Steven Saylor’s Roman Blood. I have since read all of Saylor’s work. I love the story of how Lindsey Davis wrote about Falco as a spoof because of her multiple rejections. You recently got me reading Ruth Downie, who brings a sense of gentleness combined with getting rough when the going gets tough. Gordianus, Falco, and Ruso are all wonderful characters who happen to exist in an historical setting.

As authors, focusing on creating an engaging detective no matter what the time period, is part of what readers want. Argolicus has some enthusiastic fans. For those fans, I hope I have given them a memorable detective.
7)      Approximately how much research do you need to do before penning an Argolicus novel? How many books or months on average do you need in that phase before you start drafting?
I don’t count. My trip to Ravenna was priceless. I could walk the city and note walking times from one place to another. At this point, I have years of research behind me. Many Italian online sites, multiple books in Italian, French, and English. I’ve had disappointments in original research like writing to Roman Law scholars and never receiving replies. Now, I have a general sense of Italy at the time and the region of Bruttia (now Calabria).

In many ways, the struggles of Bruttia are similar to modern southern Italy. It’s far away from “cultural” centers, is poor, and is agricultural. People from the south carry a provincial stigma. At the time, Bruttia also had a corrupt and venal governor who was often reprimanded by the king.
8)      As a historical novelist myself, I’ve come to see such a genre as immune to trends, fashion or any other cultural flux, that they could be written and not published for a century because the historical time makes the story hermetic and immune to trends. Is that how you see historical fiction or do you think certain latter-day trends need to be observed?
I agree for the most part, remembering that story comes first. Alexandre Dumas wrote historical novels which are still great reads as stories even though his historical tweaks would not be acceptable to modern readers who want more alignment with the historical details.
9)      When one sets their novels in a historical context, a balance must be struck between the authentic and the accessible. However, when one goes 1500 years back in time, especially when another language is involved, authenticity becomes all but impossible. How do you handle the dialogue while giving the reader the flavor of a story set in the 6th century or do you just throw in the towel and strive for accessibility to a 21st century readership?
Haha! One time I found myself in the grocery absolutely astounded that everyone was speaking English because I was going back and forth in my head between Italian (Latin), Greek, and Syrian. Except for Cassiodorus I try to keep the dialogue the way people would speak without Latin sentence construction. I base the dialogue on the character but use contemporary English. For example, the rushing sentences of a teenage girl are different from the matter-of-fact conversation of a businessman. It’s a call every author has to make. Accessibility.

Neal Stephenson follows the same guidelines when he goes back in time.
10)      Plotter or pantser?
I do an overall story outline. I find it helpful in constructing a mystery so clues can come early. The story heads toward the discovery of who did it. However, as I write scene by scene, characters do and say things that tweak my original scene notes. I always go with the character at those moments. Jo Nesbø works similarly, so I feel I’m in good company.
11)      Besides the obvious, like doing the requisite research, what words of advice do you have for young or novice writers who yearn to write historical fiction?
Know your time period. The culture, the political trends and factions, prevailing and/or competing religious views. Learn enough to know how your protagonist acts within the prevailing culture. You’ll probably end up looking up small details as you write each story., like oil or wax candles, or whether or not people had chickens. Those will vary with each story. If you know your characters well and know the overview of the period, you have enough to set your story in motion.
12)      Describe for my readers and me what your average writing day is like. Do you use strictly a laptop, do you use notebooks or is it both?
I use a laptop. Mostly I write at my desk but on good weather days I take the laptop outside to enjoy the air. I write at two different times of day—early morning and late evening. Every writer seems to have their best time for writing. Consistency is paramount. I work on storyline and marketing in the afternoon.
13)      In your next-to-last podcast on June 25th, you explained the importance of setting in fiction. How do you personally recreate a world that’s long dead (such as 6th century Ravenna) and make it plausible to your readers?
I like script writing consultant, Scott Myers’, advice. Go into the story. If he hadn’t already coined the phrase, I would use it all the time. I mentally stand in the scene along with my characters. I see what they see. I hate info dumps as a reader and don’t want my readers to suffer through the same thing. It doesn’t matter to readers how much you know, they want to experience what’s happening in the story.
14)      Who were some of your favorite authors growing up?
Gosh, I read so much. I was inspired to writing at the tender age of five by meeting children’s author, Phyllis Ayer Sowers who wrote about children in the East. We had Encyclopedia Britannica in our home which at the time had a children’s set which was about children in other lands. I read all of them. I started my love of history when an adult gifted me a monthly subscription to children’s history books. Then Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and every science fiction book in the local public library. I couldn’t get enough of mythology and studied folklore in college. As a teenager I went through my Russian phase: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol. In college, still a teenager, I met Chaucer, Beowulf, Sir Gawayne and the Greene Knight. And on toward the Saga of Burnt Njal.
15)      What’s next for Argolicus or are you the type of writer who doesn’t like to talk about WIPs?
Once, The Vellum Scribe, is finished, I’ll be working on the full-length mystery, working title The Horse Trader’s Daughter. Local insurrection, Argolicus set up for an arranged marriage, the church as buyers of children of the poor, and, of course, the mystery.

Thank you, Robert. Great questions.

     If you’re interested in Ms. Altair’s Argolicus mysteries, you can find her official website here and/or subscribe to her list right here. Or, if you’re on Facebook, stop by her author page and leave a “like.” Happy reading!


At July 2, 2018 at 2:52 PM, Blogger Zara Altair said...

Thank you, Robert. Some of the best questions I've been asked. Honored to be included on your website. Zara


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