~Q&A conducted by Scott Butki
I am new to Steven Saylor’s books, but I am quickly becoming a fan. Saylor is most known for his Roma Sub Rosa series, historical mysteries based in ancient Rome. Steven Saylor will be at Book People tonight. He’ll be speaking about & signing copies of his new book in the series, Raiders of the Nile.
I quite enjoyed this one. He does a wonderful job bringing ancient history alive in the book. I investigated more into Saylor and the other stories he’s written in preparation for the interview.
Saylor divides his time between Austin and Berkeley, CA. An earlier historical fiction novel A Twist at the End, focuses on a particularly crazy time in Austin’s history. Set in the 19th century, the story focuses on William Porter (who would later become O. Henry), an Austin resident at that time, and tells the stories of a series of murders. The serial murder was referred to as the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” by the press. The novel is both engaging and chilling. I recommended to learn a bit of the darker side of Austin.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this story develop?
STEVEN SAYLOR: My last novel, The Seven Wonders, was a prequel to the Roma Sub Rosa series, going back to the younger days of Gordianus the Finder, sleuth of ancient Rome. Raiders of the Nile picks up where The Seven Wonders left off, with Gordianus now twenty-two years old and far from Rome, living in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt–at that time the most sophisticated and exciting city on earth. When his beloved concubine, Bethesda, is kidnapped, Gordianus ventures into the wilds of the Nile Delta to rescue her, encountering treacherous innkeepers, ill-tempered camels, a particularly vicious crocodile, and the mysterious leader of a bandit gang, who lures Gordianus into a plot to steal the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great.
There’s no murder mystery per se in this novel, but there are plenty of murders, and mysteries, and we see the young Gordianus just beginning to come into his own as a master sleuth. I’d say this novel is equal parts mystery, adventure, and romance, set in a very exotic time and place.
MP: Why did you decide to write a series of books based so long ago?
SS: From childhood, I always loved movies and books about the ancient world, especially Rome. When I got to the University of Texas at Austin, I majored in history, which was like a dream–I could hardly believe I was being allowed to spend all my time reading and writing about Greek mythology or the French Revolution, to name just a couple of my favorite courses.
When I finally took my first trip to Rome, the experience of walking though the ancient ruins was electrifying. I got back home and immediately began reading a book about murder trials in ancient Rome, and one of those cases inspired me to write my first novel, Roman Blood, for which I invented my series sleuth, Gordianus the Finder. Almost 25 years later, Roman Blood is still in print and Gordianus is still solving crimes, with the series translated into over twenty languages.
MP: How far have you planned out this series?
SS: I’m actually only one book ahead right now–the sequel to Raiders of the Nile, which will take young Gordianus to the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor at the exact moment when Rome’s mortal enemy, King Mithridates, is secretly plotting a surprise massacre of every Roman in Asia Minor–all 80,000 of them–in a single day. How will Gordianus escape? I have to keep writing to find out.
MP: How do you do research on your Nile series?
SS: There’s been very little in the way of archaeological excavation in the city of Alexandria (except underwater in the harbor), so we mostly have to rely on virtual reconstructions of such wonders as the great Pharos Lighthouse. And the whole nature of the Nile Delta has changed since the building of the Aswan Dam, which stopped the annual flooding of the Nile. So most of the research for this particular story and setting was literary, which gave me an excuse to spend lots of time at the university libraries in Austin and Berkeley, my two home towns.
MP: Are Bethesda and Gordianus based on anyone specific?
SS: Every fictional character–male or female, hero or villain–is a projection of his or her creator. We all have a lot of people inside us, yet we get to live only one life. Fiction lets us slip into someone else’s skin, so to speak. That’s why we read novels, and also why we write them–to experience more life, through imagination.
MP: I was impressed you managed to have an ancient version of a car chase, albeit with camels instead. Was that fun to write?
SS: Poor Gordianus, framed for murder, ends up in a headlong chase, making one hair-breadth escape after another–it’s a bit like those chase scenes in Return of the Jedi or Raiders of the Lost Ark. I find that kind of action writing to be a great technical challenge–describing the movement of people and objects through space is the hardest kind of writing, I think. It’s probably very hard to film, as well.
MP: I first heard of you soon after I moved to Austin and I heard about your O. Henry book with its Austin connections. How did you learn about the murders and go about researching those crimes?
SS: That book was A Twist at the End, a novel based on the killings of the so-called Servant Girl Annihilator which terrified the city of Austin in the 1880s. These were America’s first reported serial murders. O. Henry was living here at the time, and I decided to make him a major character in the story.
I first learned about the murders when I came across a brief mention of them in an old picture book about Austin; but when I tried to learn more, I couldn’t find any book or even an article about the killings. That set me on the trail, and the more I researched, digging through old newspapers and court records, the more I found myself immersed not just in the story of the murders, but in Austin of the 1880s, a time and place never depicted in fiction. I wrote A Twist at the End as a sort of valentine to the city of Austin as it used to be, warts and all.
Since Twist was published in 2000, there’s been an explosion of interest in those crimes. I was recently interviewed by the PBS series History Detectives, which is producing an hour-long show about the Austin servant girl killings to air sometime this summer.
MP: Was that fun to write? Any plans for other books based in Austin?
SS: Researching and writing A Twist at the End was one of the great joys of my life. In some ways, it was a like a long vacation from my day-job–writing about ancient Rome! I would like to write another historical epic set in Austin some day, about the early days of the Texas Republic.
MP: What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series versus stand-alone books?
SS: The stand-alone author must always be wondering: what will I write next? But with a series, especially a historical series, you can see the road far ahead, and the question is: how many books will it take to get there?
When I wrote Roman Blood in 1991, I could never have imagined there would eventually be a dozen novels and two volumes of short stories about Gordianus the Finder. Such a long series allows a writer to build complex relationships between the characters, and to cover a huge arc of history, in this case from the bloody collapse of the Roman Republic to the rise of Julius Caesar. Gordianus gets to see a lot of history, as do the readers.
Gordianus also get older as the series progresses, aging from his thirties to his sixties–but now, with the prequels, he’s young again, which as close I’ll come to regaining my own youth. I rather enjoy being twenty-two again, if only through my alter ego.
Raiders of the Nile is available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Steven Saylor will be at the store tonight, Mar 31 at 7PM speaking & signing copies of the book. Visit our website for more info & to order your signed copy.