|I first ‘met’ M C Scott on a Yahoo discussion group. Reading her comments in the discussions prompted me to check the library for her books. The first one I read was The Crystal Skull. I loved its fantasy escapism and drama so I next read her first crime novel, Hen’s Teeth. Again I loved the book. The characters drew me into this gripping story and I had to keep turning the pages. So, as soon as I could (with the co-operation of the local library’s interlibrary loan system – I’m not a complete skinflint, I’m just running out of space on my bookshelves…), I got my hands on her latest book, Rome: The Emperor’s Spy. Again I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed the book so much that I’ve invited Ms Scott to join me to answer a few questions about the book.
So, shall we start?
Rome: The Emperor’s Spy is the first book in your new series. Would you tell readers about the novel.
MCS: The Emperor’s Spy is essentially what it says on the tin: a spy thriller set in ancient Rome, based on the true story of the fire that destroyed four out of fourteen districts. I had originally conceived of it as a sequel to the Boudica: Dreaming series: the fire was started barely 3 years after the end of the revolt, and I had left a family: Mother, father and newborn baby – in Gaul at the end of Book 2 of the Boudica series: Dreaming the Bull, expressly for this purpose. I had a mental image of a young boy who desperately wants to be a charioteer and ride in front of the Emperor driving his chariot against the backdrop of a burning city.
I envisaged it as a simple thriller to begin with, but found soon that the fire had been lit on the night of the 18th July AD 64 – which was the night that Sirius, the Dog Star, rose over Rome for the first time that year. There were apocalyptic manuscripts in circulation at the time containing a prophecy that the Kingdom of Heaven could not arise until or unless Rome had burned under the eyes of the Dog Star. SO the contention was that ‘one of the early sects of Christianity’ had lit the fire. I ran with that for several months, researching the various sects – until I tracked back and discovered that *none of them existed before the 2nd century* certainly not as early as 64AD – at that point, there were the men and women who had lived and fought alongside the Galilean (who was the 1st century insurgent on whom Paul modelled his god – violently anti-Roman and aiming for a theocracy to overthrow Rome)… and there was Paul who was sprinting round the eastern Mediterranean, trying to stay one step ahead of the men who were hunting him – and who was basically making up his own religion as he went along: and his version was decidedly pro-Roman and essentially contrary to all the Hebrew teachings. It had no basis in truth, but enough basis in half-truth to catch hold in the diaspora where the people had only read the Greek version of the scriptures and knew of the Galilean and his followers only by reputation. They were, in short, gullible and easily led by a man who was essentially the Tony Blair of his time.
SO I had to work out why Paul might do that – and it made sense that he was a Roman agent tasked with neutralising the sect that Josephus calls the Fourth Philosophy – led by the Galilean. He used torture and executions first – Josephus says that the agents of the high priest tortured the children in front of their parents and still couldn’t get them to acknowledge Caesar as their god – and when that failed, he realised the way to undermine them was to take their leader and turn him into the start of a new religion – one that was the polar opposite of all he had fought for. When the Hebrews finally caught up with Paul and got him to Jerusalem, they tried to execute him – but the Romans sent half a legion in to get him out, which kind of clinches the deal in my view: they wouldn’t do that for someone who didn’t matter a lot.
He vanishes from history before the fire, but I’m pretty sure he was around, or his followers were. SO he’s the basis of my spy story – and I made a balancing spy – the good guy – to hunt him down and try to stop the fire from destroying Rome. Pantera is one of my all time favourite characters. His name is based on a real name taken from a tomb stone – and it means ‘leopard’ which is perfect for a spy. I gave him a back story where he had gone under cover in Britain before the revolt, and basically ‘gone native’ and been captured and crucified at the end, then cut down when they realised he was Roman. But he absolutely doesn’t want to spy again. Ever. Nero has to lure him in from the cold, so to speak, and that sets our narrative in train.
You use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which do you prefer to write and why?
MCS: I used to massively prefer my own fictional characters, but these days, it doesn’t make much difference. Nero, for instance, has been the subject of two thousand years of slander, when at the time, the early years of his reign were considered a golden age of reason and moderation. When the fire struck Rome, he was 11 miles away and quite safe. He chose to drive (that is, his chariot was driven, I doubt if he drove it himself) back into the fire and opened the gates of his palace, with its stone walls, to the people, and gave them food, water and shelter. He helped organise the fire defences and as a result, only 4 sectors were lost. Afterwards, he made sure the rebuilding didn’t leave Rome open to another fire as devastating. So while he clearly lost the plot in the end, and did things that really upset the Senate, he wasn’t the monster he has been made out to be. I rather liked rehabilitating him. Similarly with Shimon, aka Simon Peter who was almost certainly Simon the zealot, who was the lieutenant of the Galilean and violently anti-Roman. Paul clearly loathed him and has traduced his memory. It was fun rehabilitating him, too.
The hypothesis that drives the story is that the fire in Rome in AD 64 was set by a group of early Christians for their own ends. Would you tell readers a little more about this theory? Do you think that this is the likely explanation for the origin of the fire or did you follow this storyline because makes a good tale?
MCS: See above for narrative – I am as certain as I can be that this is true – the fire was lit on the 18th of July. There was a prophecy. Even to a hardened cynic such as myself, that’s too much of a coincidence.
Did you have a clear idea of the storyline for this series while you were still writing the Boudica series or did it come later?
MCS: I had a clear outline for a story involving a fire – at the time of writing, I came to realise it was a spy story and it was only when it was in bound proof form that we decided to take Pantera on beyond the end of this book. The series is currently planned as 4 books long, and may continue – there’s such a rich, rich vein of history there, with so many interesting characters – Josephus, Vespasian, the heirs of Seneca who I am sure was a spy master of sorts… there is so much to write about…
I’ve heard that you do considerable research about the ancient world for your books. Besides academic research, what else did you do to research this book?
MCS: Not as much actual on-the-ground archeology as I did for the Boudica series (where I slept in a round house for a week, and went to find a man who made his own harness to find out how the harness mounts worked). Most of this is reading texts on very early christianity, and surrounding areas – the sources texts are from Josephus, with help from Philo, Tacitus and Suetonius, but most of the deconstruction of, for instance, Paul’s relations with the Fourth Philosophy and his creation of a pseudo-Dionysian myth are in modern texts.
Your crime novels feature strong female lead characters. In Rome, many of the central characters are male. What was it like writing about mainly male characters for this book?
MCS: The sad thing is that it’s very hard to find ways women can express their own strengths in a plausible fashion in the ancient world. The Sibyls were a gold mine because they were highly respected by Rome, and there’s reasonable evidence that Roman men were actually afraid of them (yay!) but beyond that…. it’s hard. I wrote Hannah as a healer – and daughter of the Galilean, conceived on a woman of the Sibyls, and she has autonomy and is free to move about. In the new book, I found queen Berenice who was another gold mine, and gave her a niece who is one of my favourite characters, so the women who exist are strong, but I have to factor them in very carefully. And I love writing Pantera, Ajax, Math… I think I’ve come to the stage where gender doesn’t matter in terms of the writing, except that I have to make it work in the historical narrative.
How many books will there be in the series? Where will the story go as the series progresses?
MCS: There are 4 books planned in the Rome series – maybe more if we like where it’s going. They follow Pantera mostly, although the 3rd, which is 2/3 of the way through as we speak, is entitled ‘The Eagle of the Twelfth’ and those of you who remember Rosmary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ will recall that it’s a first person narrative from the perspective of the man who goes to find the eagle. The Eagle of the Ninth was never truly lost, whereas the Eagle of the Twelfth was, and under pretty astonishing circumstances, so this book is written first person from the viewpoint of a legionary with the Twelfth and starts several years before Pantera came to Gaul at the beginning of The Emperor’s Spy. SO we see him through other eyes, which has been fun to write.
The fourth will head back to Rome, I think, tho’ I do want to see the point where Josephus declares Vespasian as the inheritor of the Star Prophecy (which declared, with perfect accuracy, that a man would arise from the east and come to rule the known world. Vespasian was in Judaea when Nero died, and did, indeed, come to rule the world). So we’ll see his route to the throne, I think – tho it may take more than one book.
After that, who knows? I have a Young Adult book I want to write, part of which is set in Ireland, so I may try to fit that in… and then after that – we’ll see where we get to.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I quite like the idea of an YA book set (evenly partly!) in Ireland. Ok, I’m biased but…great setting. Meanwhile I look forward to reading Rome: The Coming of the King as soon as possible.
MCS: Thank you for giving me space on your blog, and good luck with your own writing.
For further details about M C Scott, Rome: The Emperor’s Spy and its sequels, visit Ms Scott’s website at www.mandascott.co.uk