Today we're excited to talk with Katharine Quinn, author of Mistress of Rome.
FQ: - Your debut novel reads so true and realistic - ancient Rome really comes alive in Mistress of Rome. What in your background/education helped you create such a realistic ancient world?
Thanks for the praise! Iíve always adored ancient Rome Ė my mother had an ancient history degree, so instead of the Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood, I got Alexander and the Gordian Knot, and Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I saw Stanley Kubrickís Spartacus when I was about eight and fell madly in love with Kirk Douglas; I just knew I had to write a book someday about a gladiator. It took a lot of research and reading to really feel my way into ancient Rome Ė not just the big events of history, but the atmosphere of daily life Ė but that was a pleasure rather than a chore.
FQ: I understand you wrote Mistress of Rome while a freshman in college. That's amazing. What inspired you to attempt such an undertaking during such a busy & stressful time in a young adult's life?
It seemed symbolic, starting a new book as I was starting a new life. And it gave me a means of escape Ė I might be three thousand miles from home and know absolutely no one in this brand new city, but I could escape into ancient Rome. I didnít have a computer, so I used to hole myself up in the university computer lab. It was fairly surreal Ė vast, cheerless, subterranean, filled with neon lighting and a lot of desperate undergraduates writing papers. You wouldnít have been too surprised to find Frankenstein on a table down there, waiting to be electrified into life. But I kept plugging away, mostly working all day weekends since classes kept me busy through the week, and somehow at the end of the first semester I had a book.
FQ: Thea is a survivor of Masada. How important is that fact to her character?
Itís the bedrock of her character, in both good and bad ways. On the negative side, she grows up with a whopping case of survivorís guilt for living on while her family died, and this translates into a bad habit of cutting herself whenever life gets her down. But on the positive side, she acquires a certain mental toughness from dealing with all that guilt and pain. Without that gritty streak, she would never have been able to withstand the bad things life later at her later, like losing the man she loved, and becoming the mistress of a psychopathic Emperor whose idea of a good time was sticking flies on pens. Theaís background definitely screwed her up, but she is at least functionally screwed up Ė and absolutely determined to survive.
FQ: Lepida is the sort of character you love to hate. Was it fun to write her parts?
Yes, she was lots of fun. I ended up being quite proud of her Ė I was certain there was no bigger bitch in all history. We can all instinctively loathe Lepida, because everybody remembers those sugar-sweet backstabbing Mean Girls from our high school years. Lepida is a Mean Girl squared; not one single redeeming quality. I suppose I have a bit of all my fictional characters in me somewhere, but I hope there isnít anything of Lepida in me except maybe her dress sense (she does have great clothes!) Still, my husband says it makes him nervous that I had it in me to create her.
FQ: Gladiatorial games are quite violent and you don't sugarcoat the fights. Was it a tough decision to write realistic fight scenes rather than censored versions? As a woman writing about a man's game (primarily) was it tough to write the fights?
Fight scenes are always easy for me Ė Iím afraid I adore violent historical fiction. I read a lot of CS Forester and Bernard Cornwell growing up, so Iím always happy when I have a hero with a sword in hand. What was difficult about writing the Colosseum scenes was the violence against animals. At least the gladiators had a fifty-fifty chance of getting out alive; the poor animals were just rounded up in the arena and slaughtered. I may love a good battle scene in a book but I canít bear seeing animals get killed, so I skipped over that part of things in Mistress of Rome as much as possible.
FQ: Why did you decide to write about Titus Flavius Domitianus rather than a better-known emperor?
I picked him because he was obscure. There are so many books already about Julius Caesar and Augustus and the better-known Emperors; I didnít feel I could bring anything new to the table. When I first started plotting out Mistress of Rome I knew I needed an evil Emperor, and my mother and her ancient history degree supplied the names of the biggest baddies. But most of them Ė Nero, Caligula, Commodus Ė had already been written about countless times, or featured in movies. I landed on Domitian because he was interesting, and because I had him all to myself. There arenít too many mentions of Domitian out there in historical fiction, which I like because readers wonít have any preconceptions going in.
FQ: Arius is a brutal, heartless gladiator, or is he? We see his love for Thea . . . what about his cute little three-legged dog? Were gladiators really allowed to have pets and also, was the pup a chance to show that Arius really was a gentle soul forced into fighting?
Arius is less brutal than brutalized. Allowed to grow up normally, heíd have probably been quite a cookie: I can see him as a construction worker coming home tired and happy to an adored wife and kids, and the only sign of his fighting side would be his absolute ruthlessness on the field during weekly football games with his buddies. But he didnít grow up normal; he had so much misery and abuse that by the time he appears in Mistress of Rome he has nothing left but rage against the world Ė and a tiny, tiny soft spot that hasnít quite been killed off. I gave him a dog because I felt I had to do something nice for him, having just torn him away from the love of his life. And I knew, even if he didnít, that he would someday get Thea back, so I thought that in the intervening years he should have something to love so he didnít get out of practice. Star gladiators had all kinds of privileges as long as they kept delivering victories in the arena, so the possibility of him keeping a pet was quite reasonable.