MysteryPeople Q&A with Steven Saylor

  • Interview by Molly Odintz

I’ve been a fan of Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder novels, along with the rest of my family, for quite some time. When Steven Saylor’s next visit to BookPeople drew close, I leaped at the opportunity to interview him about the series. Steven Saylor will be speaking and signing his second novel of Gordianus’s early adventures, Wrath of the Furieson Tuesday, November 3rd, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. 

Molly Odintz: First of all, what are your research methods like? Do you have a timeline going in your head at all times that you can just zoom in on for plot ideas?

Steven Saylor: I’m constantly roving through the ancient world—reading ancient authors, attending lectures at UT Austin and UC Berkeley, watching old gladiator movies (yes, that counts as research!)—but when I settle in to write a novel, I zoom in on that specific time and place, looking for the most fascinating people and all the juiciest details that could go into constructing a fast-paced, suspenseful, and meaningful story.

MO: Your novels sometimes remind me of Philip Kerr’s Nazi-Germany-set Bernie Gunther novels, in that they explore the “semi-futility of solving a small crime within the context of an ongoing larger crime” narrative, wherein Gordianus the Finder must confront the limitations of his own ability to help others in the context of a brutal and chaotic empire. Do you make the 20th century parallels in your own head while you’re writing about ancient Rome?

SS: Hasn’t the world always been like this—two steps forward, one step back? I’m a basically cheerful and optimistic person myself, but Gordianus has seen some pretty gruesome and appalling events in his life—perhaps never more so than in the latest novel,Wrath of the Furies (including what we now call ethnic cleansing and genocide). But even at the darkest hour, there are small epiphanies and moral triumphs that keep him moving forward.

MO: Gordianus the Finder solves cases in a very brutal era. Is it a relief to you, as a detective novelist, to just be able to kill off as many characters as you wish without worrying about plausibility, or rather, as a guarantor of plausibility?

SS: Yes, my books sometimes have more corpses than a Shakespearean tragedy. But the people closest to Gordianus continue to be there, book after book, such as his beloved wife Bethesda (first seen as his slave in Roman Blood), his brainy daughter Diana, his not-so-brainy son-in-law Davus, and so on. And three are recurring characters, such as the famous politician Cicero, who keeps popping up despite some dramatic ups and downs. Julius Caesar looms very large in later books of the series—though he is soon to make his bloody exit.

“I couldn’t resist such a dramatic and dangerous setting. The young Gordianus must draw on every skill and insight he possesses to save himself and those he cares for.”

MO: Although Gordianus is a citizen of Rome, his adventures range across the Mediterranean world. What has been your favorite setting for him?

SS: Most of the novels have been set in Rome during a period of spectacular show trials, increasing violence, and finally a civil war that becomes a world war. But for the last three novels, I’ve gone back in time, exploring Gordianus’s younger days when he traveled the word to see the Seven Wonders, then settled for a while in Alexandria, Egypt, the most cosmopolitan city of the ancient world. Young Gordianus loves his slacker existence there (and so do I). But Rome will call him home, sooner or later.

MO: Wrath of the Furies takes place in such an interesting context. What brought the story of Mithridates to your attention?

SS: In 88 BC, a world war is raging between the Roman Empire and King Mithridates of Pontus, whose goal is to drive the Romans out of the Greek-speaking world. Roman refugees have been streaming by the tens of thousands out of Asia Minor (modern Turkey)—another parallel to today—but as many as 80,000 are still trapped there. Mithridates conceives a plot to kill every one of them—men, women, and children—in a single day. And at this very moment, a cryptic message from his old, estranged tutor lures Gordianus to the city of Ephesus, the very epicenter of the impending slaughter. I couldn’t resist such a dramatic and dangerous setting. The young Gordianus must draw on every skill and insight he possesses to save himself and those he cares for.

MO: Where will Gordianus go next?

SS: The next novel will resume the chronological progression of the series, with Gordianus in his sixties playing a key role in a huge historical event—the assassination of Julius Caesar. I’ve been pondering how to approach this story, especially as a mystery novelist, for quite some time, and the plot has finally hatched in my head.

MO: What are some of your influences in the historical fiction/detective novel genres?

SS: The historical fiction that most affected me as a young reader were the novels of ancient Greece by Mary Renault, including The Persian Boy, Gore Vidal’s landmark novel Julian (about the last pagan emperor), Robert Graves’ Hercules, My Shipmate (much more fun than his I, Claudius), and Mika Waltari’s enduring masterpieces The Egyptian and The Roman. I was first lured to crime fiction by Sherlock Holmes (I read the canon straight through, every story from first to last, one of the great experiences in my lifetime as a reader). My favorite contemporary crime novelist is the late Ruth Rendell; I look forward to reading her very last novel, Dark Corners, which has just been published.

You can find copies of Wrath of the Furies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by the store tonight, Tuesday, November 3rd, at 7 PM, for a speaking and signing session with Mr. Saylor.

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