Launch: Melissa Addey’s Beneath the Waves
INTERVIEW BY E.C. AMBROSE
Melissa Addey’s tenth novel has just been published. Details of a giveaway at the end of this interview.
Can you give a brief description of the book?
Rome, 80AD. In From the Ashes, we first meet the backstage team of the newly-built Colosseum, in particular Marcus, its manager, and Althea, his scribe. The Colosseum must be inaugurated with one hundred consecutive days of gladiatorial Games, but Marcus loses everything he holds dear when Vesuvius erupts and destroys Pompeii. Althea must face both fire and plague while struggling to keep Marcus from the darkness that calls to him. Now, in Beneath the Waves, the Emperor commands that the Colosseum be flooded and that magnificent water-based spectacles must be created. While Althea fights hidden fears, Marcus must face the dangers, mistakes and emotions of the watery depths. The Colosseum series, following the mighty amphitheatre’s backstage team and their lives, will eventually be made up of four books, each exploring an elemental theme: fire, water, earth and air. The first book was awarded Editor’s Choice by the HNS.
You wrote work set in Morocco and China before shifting your focus to Rome. What attracted you to the Roman period?
The odd combination of huge amounts of information about a fascinating and complex era so that I could gather really useful research materials, combined with a gaping hole at the very centre of one of its most evocative buildings. There is no information or mention whatsoever of the backstage team of the Colosseum, even though a similar 60,000-seater arena today employs 3,000 permanent members of staff. They put on extraordinary spectacles while remaining invisible. An irresistible combination for an author!
What kind of details from visiting the Colosseum informed the story?
The sheer vastness of it (for flooding). How difficult it would be to even get a message to another member of the team quickly, which I discovered when I had to take my small daughter to the toilet on one side and then hurry to rejoin a tour guide on the other side! I had to create multiple ways of overcoming this problem. What it feels like underneath the arena floor, where my team would spend a lot of time: a dark, labyrinthine place lit with flickering fire. The extraordinary system of lifts by which gladiators and animals could rise out of the arena floor, ready to fight for their lives.
Aside from Althea and Marcus, you craft a variety of other characters from the spectrum of Roman society. Do you have a favorite among your secondary characters?
I’m fond of Fabia. She is based on a beautiful Grecian vase in the British Museum, where the decorative figures show ‘the physician’s dwarf assistant, showing in patients’. I made her a physician’s daughter, with aspirations to be a physician herself to the gladiators, who are not that keen on accepting her at first. She’s a thoughtful person with a fierce desire burning in her and so I gave her an opportunity to prove herself under rather grisly circumstances.
What inspired you to start writing?
I read a lot as a child, so I guess after all that input my own stories started developing in my mind and had to come out sometime! I started with a picture book and some non-fiction as I explored my craft and then found my love of historical fiction and haven’t looked back. Beneath the Waves is my 10th historical novel and I feel proud of that, it feels like a milestone.
How did your background affect your writing?
I grew up on a hill farm in Italy and as a child I loved reading mythology from all over the world, especially Greek and Roman. When I started to research what the daily gladiatorial Games were made up of, I realised they frequently incorporated those stories into rather gruesome ways of creating spectacular gladiatorial battles and the execution of criminals. Sometimes I feel like the manager of the Colosseum myself, sat at a desk wondering what myth I could use today to entertain my audience.
What advantages and challenges did you find in writing a sequel?
It’s really engaging to continue life with a group of characters and have them develop and change over time, so that their relationships and concerns become meaningful. The first book had the eruption of Vesuvius, a three-day fire and a plague that killed 10,000 people, so for the second book it felt like history was a little quieter and less dramatic! But that allowed me to develop personal issues for the characters and history did provide an interesting ending for the book…
Did you discover anything particularly interesting during your research?
For Beneath the Waves, the Romans had what we would call synchronized swimmers. The famous poet of the time Martial marvels at their skills, saying they must have been taught by a water-nymph. He describes them making the shape of a star, of a ship, of an anchor. It’s amazing to read his description and then be able to look at modern synchronized swimmers and see videos of them making just such shapes in the water. Not to mention the sheer engineering feat of flooding the Colosseum and draining it in just half an hour for each. There are various papers by modern engineers trying to figure out they managed it. My ‘aquarius’ (a water engineer) in the book runs through a lot of the theories before settling on a way forward.
What is the last great book you read?
I really need more reading time! Because of what I write, a lot of what I read is non-fiction for my research and my fiction TBR pile is now well over sixty books and threatening to fall over any minute (doesn’t stop me buying more though, hmmmm). One of my favourite research books which is very readable for anyone is Working IX to V, by Vicky Leon. It goes through all kinds of jobs in ancient Rome including hair-pluckers, orgy-planners and funeral clowns. There was barely a job I didn’t want to use somewhere in the series.
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