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Apr 13, 2010

Interview: Kate Quinn, author of Mistress of Rome & Giveaway

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn just came out to rave reviews on April 6, 2010. We have an opportunity for my readers at The Burton Review to score a copy of this book for themselves; details are at the end of the post.

Please welcome author Kate Quinn as I ask her a few questions:

I've read that you started to write at an early age. What authors helped to inspire you as a child? Did you grow up wanting to be an accomplished writer?
I read everything I could get my hands on as a child – C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, all the L. Frank Baum Oz books, Edith Hamilton’s Greek mythology, countless others. But what inspired me the most was history itself: I read biographies of Julius Caesar, Elizabeth I, Peter the Great, and it astounded me that such fascinating people really lived. My first straggling hand-written story (at age seven) was all about the assassination of Edward II, full of sex and murder long before I understood what either one was. I can’t say I ever made a decision to become a writer; I just was one. I was writing a novel by the time I was ten and haven’t stopped since. A lot of those early novel projects were absolute disasters, but it was a learning experience.

Tell us about your writing journey and your inspiration behind Mistress of Rome?
Ever since seeing Kirk Douglas in Spartacus when I was about eight, I’d wanted to write a book about a gladiator – I just didn’t get around to it until I was nineteen. I had just gone three thousand miles off to college in Boston, and I knew absolutely nobody. So I percolated a story and escaped into ancient Rome instead. I didn’t have a computer, so I had to pack up my books and notes and head to the university computer lab to work. It wasn’t the most harmonious of settings – a huge underground basement filled with ominous neon lighting and tight-lipped graduate students all trying to finish a thesis and hissing at you if you made a sound. But at least there wasn’t anything to do there but work, so I’d just crank up the Gladiator soundtrack on my headset and hammer away. By the end of the semester I had a book – though getting it published was a different journey. That took a few more years, and a query letter I probably re-wrote twenty different ways.

What books were the most useful while researching for this novel?
Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars was my most valuable primary source. He was an Imperial archivist in early Imperial Rome who wrote a biography of the first twelve Emperors. It’s a terrifically entertaining read, because Suetonius threw scholarly objectivity completely out the window and wrote a rumor-packed, scandal-laden, twelve-part gossip column. He gives details of each Emperor’s appearance, their character, their personal habits, who they slept with, who they worked with, who they had killed. Who knows how much of it is true? All I could do was guess. Nowadays Suetonius would be working for Us Weekly or maybe Gossip Girl.

Most of your characters in your novel are portrayed as cruel and heartless. While writing and being immersed within your storytelling, did this bleed over into your personal life and affect you mentally while writing the story?
Well, I hope not all of them are cruel and heartless, just trapped in bad situations! Fortunately, I can say that no matter how much time I spent with the psychopathic Emperor Domitian or the monumentally self-absorbed Lepida, I never felt any crossover from their lives to mine. (And a good thing too, since I’d be arrested for murder, assassination, conspiracy, incest, rape, and worst of all, cruelty to animals.) Villains are fun to write in fiction – you get to explore what it’s like to be a despot or a man-eater without actually doing wrong yourself.

Are there any surprising revelations that you came across during your research?
What I found most surprising (and gratifying) was the number of personal quirks attributed to Domitian. Many were reported by Suetonius, so it’s doubtful if they’re all factual, but it makes a portrait of a very odd Emperor. According to the rumors of the time Domitian threw all-black dinner parties, speared flies out of the air on the point of his pen, and wrote a manual on hair care. He made his niece into his mistress, but had a popular Roman actor killed on suspicion the man was having an affair with his Empress. He hated children, getting rid of both his own two nephews and an unborn child by his niece, yet was accompanied at the Colosseum by a boy in a red tunic with whom he chatted non-stop about the gladiators in the arena. The more cheerful his jokes got, the more likely it was that people would start dying. He asked his astrologer to predict his death date, and the man got it right down to the hour of day. Who knows if all of this is true, but it was reported as true at the time, and created a splendidly quirky villain for me.

Which of the characters were your personal favorite to create and why?
That’s like trying to pick a favorite child – I love them all for different reasons, even the villains. Probably my favorites are Thea and Arius, my slave heroine and gladiator hero. They are very damaged people in their ways, but they deserve happiness with each other. Thea has endurance and humor even in the worst situations, and Arius has been brutalized all his life but has a huge capacity for love. And I have a special fondness for Marcus, the intelligent Senator who always knows more than he lets on – based, I’ll admit, on Derek Jacobi’s wonderful performance in the mini-series I, Claudius. Jacobi’s Claudius had a lot of bad luck in his life, so I made sure Marcus got a happier ending.

How excited are you that you have now become a published author? What's been the best part of the journey? Is there a bad part to the journey?
Publication has been the world’s best roller coaster. There is not one day I don’t wake up and think how lucky I am to be in this position. From editing to copy-editing, searching for blurbs to searching for the perfect cover, this has been an education and a blast. The best part of it all has been working with the team of people who really put this book into motion – my agent, my editor, my copy-editor, the Berkley sales team; I was lucky to find such incredible people who adored my book and worked so hard to make it the best they could. There hasn’t been much of a bad side yet, unless it’s reading the inevitable negative reviews. You go into this knowing you won’t please everybody, but it can still be a bit squelching when you find someone online who hated your baby. Still, I have a rule of thumb about negative reviews: if the reviewer is incapable of using “its” vs. “it’s” or the various forms of “there” correctly, I do not have to feel bad that they disliked my book.

What is the topic of the next novel that you are working on?
I’m not done with ancient Rome yet, or maybe it’s not done with me. Currently I’m working on both a sequel and a prequel to Mistress of Rome. It wasn’t intended to be a trilogy, but as I was writing I started to wonder about the lives of some of the smaller characters. The prequel reaches back to the Year of Four Emperors, and features Emperor Domitian’s extremely enigmatic wife as a young woman. The sequel focuses on two characters who are just children in Mistress of Rome: a senator’s daughter who grows up with a yen for adventure, and a gladiator’s son who ends up serving in Emperor Trajan’s wars. The prequel is in the editing stage and the sequel is about half finished, so who knows when they’ll be out.

Thanks for having me!
I loved learning about Kate's journey with this novel, and I am so glad that it seems to be a big success already! I hope I get to read this soon myself, my fellow historical fiction bloggers have already written of how much they have enjoyed this one.

For my USA followers, I am offering a chance to win one copy of Mistress of Rome directly from the publisher.

To enter:
Comment with your email address and:
Tell me what your favorite "Roman" themed book or movie has been so far.

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Good Luck!

Giveaway ends April 23rd.