Lindsey Davis: On writing ‘when the mood takes me’.

Richard Lee

Lindsey Davis is the Chair of the Society of Authors, and will be a Guest of Honour at the HNSLondon12 Conference in September. Over the years she has supported the HNS many times, speaking for us at Kirby Hall, the New Cavendish Club, and the Cambridge History Festival. It has just been announced that Hodder in the UK, and St Martin’s Press in the US will be publishing a new series by her in 2013 featuring Flavia Albia, adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco. The first book will be The Ides of April.

RL: If you were compelled to live in the Roman Imperium, where would you choose to live, and at what level of society? Given the choice, would you be male or female then?

LD: Well, I would want to be near a city, preferably with a warm climate, and it’s always going to be the Roman west rather than the Greek east. I’d always choose the middle ranks too, because that’s where you have the least squalid conditions with the most hope of self-determination and self-advancement, a possibility of education and enough cash to enjoy the rich product of the Empire.

My heart says be a woman, but in any historical period up until when I was actually born that means 1) if you had any love life you would probably die in childbirth and 2) you couldn’t be a professional writer. Tricky!

RL: When you first wrote Rome few other novelists were doing so. Since Gladiator, there has been a surge, and a huge surge in novels predicated on violence. Does that make it an easier era to write, or do you have to deal with changing expectations?

Your first sentence sums this up: I have never written to expectations, or I would never have written about Rome in the first place. An early reviewer called Falco iconoclastic and once I looked it up I knew he is not half as iconoclastic as me.

It’s just possible that if Ridley Scott hadn’t read Falco, which he obviously did, there would have been no Gladiator, and if I hadn’t broken through publishers’ hostility there would be no bash-and-slash boy authors ( and no ‘let me didactically tell you stuff about the Romans’ girl authors) either.

I just carry on blithely doing what I do, which means in my books the existence of violence is acknowledged, sometimes to a greater extent than critics or readers notice, but I also appeal to those who want something more cerebral than one fight after another, those who like a love story, those who are interested in daily life and human endeavour. This gives real joy to readers.

Books I wrote twenty years ago on that basis are still in print and will continue after I am gone. Can the bash-and-slash boys hope for the same?

That said, anyone who thinks that Gaius Vinius (in Master and God) is a softie isn’t paying attention. And I am decently proud of my efforts on the Battle of Tapae and of Naseby in Rebels and Traitors.

RL: What do you find most alien about the past? Does it help or hinder your writing?

LD: Religion. I leave it out as much as possible.

RL: Where/how do you write, and do you still have the same passion for writing?

LD: Properly at my desk, on a computer (toolmaker’s grandchild – you use the best tools available to do the job). When the mood takes me, but often enough (book a year for over 20 years). Using grammar and a big vocabulary. And yes. Though you will notice I used the word ‘job’. There is nothing wrong with writing to pay your way. Never trust an author who burbles ‘Oh I don’t mind if I am paid for it’. You want someone who respects what they do and values their work, for which after all readers are generally required to pay good money.

RL: What are the things you like most about writing? (Travel? Research? Starting or finishing? Readers? Reviewers?!)

LD: Writing itself. What a fabulous way to, as I just said, earn your living.

I approach travel nervously, though I usually like it when I get there. Research gives a buzz when you find something useful. Readers can be truly wonderful – or utterly exasperating. I won’t comment on reviewers, though that reminds me I haven’t yet made one of them a murder victim…

Starting is good, and finishing gives you a sense of achievement though for me it is always accompanied by a strange kind of melancholy. Even when I believe the book is a cracker, I am loth to leave it behind.

RL: What inspires you most – in writing, or life in general?

LD: No idea. I think the notion of writers being ‘inspired’ is a concept invented by people who don’t write.

RL: What are the burning issues for the Society of Authors at the moment?

LD: Our time is probably divided between trying to maintain authors’ ability to earn something for their work and encouraging reading, particularly among the young who are the readers of the future. So we are monitoring the usual things like authors’ advances and keeping a constant eye on what happens with ebooks, whilst also making submissions to government about copyright, its confused attack on Public Lending Right and pleading for there to be libraries in all schools. We give our support to library campaigners and are supporting the Booksellers’ Association ‘Keep Bookshops on Our High Streets’ campaign.

Much of our effort goes on ‘personal cases’, which by their nature are confidential, but recently these have been highlighting how desperate publishers are nibbling away at copyright.

RL: On Goodreads, of all your books get good ratings, but Course of Honour gets the highest average. Do you have a book you are most proud of? How do you feel about the democratization of reviewing, and the newly diverse blogosphere that so drives ‘word of mouth’ these days?

LD: I am very proud of The Course of Honour because it was the first book I wrote that (eventually) was published and I am still amazed by how assured I was. I do think I achieved things in the Falco series that remain distinct and original even though it might appear others are copying the idea, and I believe that the Official Falco Companion is a book that deserved more recognition; an editor has told me she thinks every author ought to read it! And Rebels and Traitors and Master and God were ambitious in new ways for me, ways I am indeed proud of.

RL: Do you have any advice for the HNS? (Not necessarily for publication – just that sometimes people don’t tell us the obvious thing…)

I don’t think you are as visible as you could be, at least not in the UK.

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