This interview with Martha Marks was published by the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative (HFAC) in April 2011:
HFAC: You have written a novel set in Rome two thousand years ago. What is it about this place and time that interested you enough to create such an adventure?
MM: Between the ages of 5 and 8, as an Army brat, I lived in Germany and traveled throughout Europe with my parents. Medieval towns, castles, cathedrals, universities, monasteries… everything we saw gave me a love of European history and culture that endures to this day. But nothing made a greater impression on me than the ruins of the Roman Forum and the towns destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius.
At 7, exploring the streets and homes of Pompeii for the first time, I knew I’d been there—perhaps even lived there—before. Even now, I get that same eerie feeling whenever I go back to Pompeii and Herculaneum.
That childhood experience launched a lifelong fascination with the Roman Empire. I’ve read scores of novels written about that era, plus dozens of non-fiction works. It’s no surprise that my first novel, Rubies of the Viper, takes place in the first century. I almost can’t imagine writing about anything else.
HFAC: Theodosia meets the many challenges to her with spirit and energy. Is she modeled after an historical person?
MM: Theodosia is a fictional creation, but the complicated and dangerous situation she finds herself in is one that actually could have happened to a real woman in the first-century Roman world.
The stimulus that led to Rubies of the Viper was my discovery, many years ago, that the only way a Roman woman could inherit and control her family property was if she had no living male relative. If she had a brother, a son, or a husband, he would be the heir.
I began to imagine a scenario in which an inexperienced and unmarried young woman would become the sole heir to a large family estate, how that development would play out in her life, and how Roman society at large would react to her new status. Rubies of the Viper is that scenario carried to one very logical (to me) conclusion.
HFAC: What were the most challenging aspects of writing Rubies of the Viper?
MM: I can point to three specific issues that challenged me more than anything else.
1. I had to get the dynamics right between the slave and free characters. Their relationships would have been quite complex and different from anything we experience in modern life. Often in fiction about this time period, the slaves come across as one-dimensional, cardboard characters, probably because authors find it hard to get inside the head of a person who is the legal property of somebody else.
Having waded through many novels like that, I was determined that my main slave characters (Alexander, Stefan, and Lucilla) would be three-dimensional people… with real lives, real hopes, real dreams, and real emotions. In my mind, I lived with them for many years before starting to write the book. And even after all that, it wasn’t easy to build authentic-feeling relationships between them and the free characters. One of the most satisfying things now is when readers tell me they think I got those complicated relationships just right.
2. I had to build a credible story using both fictional and historical characters. It was fun to be totally creative with the co-protagonists (Theodosia and Alexander) and other invented characters, but four men in the book who ultimately became Roman emperors (Nero, Otho, Vespasian, and Titus) had to be spot-on in their physical traits and personal qualities. I couldn’t describe them in ways that didn’t ring true, or make them do things they wouldn’t have done in real life. I had to understand what they were really like before I could hope to bring them to life in my book. Several knowledgeable readers, including a college professor of classics, have said that the way I portrayed Nero and Otho is as good as they’ve ever seen. That definitely makes me happy!
3. At one point in the course of the story, I had to leave the comfortable confines of my Roman setting and follow a character off on a trip to a very different ancient country. Telling more about that section of the novel will spoil it for readers, so I’ll just say that it not only required a great deal of site-specific research but also forced me to break out of my comfort zone and conjure up a totally different first-century culture in a place that I had never given much thought to before. I’m proud now of the portrayal of that place and society that I ultimately achieved, but it only came together after a great amount of struggle and stress.
HFAC: Where can we find Rubies of the Viper? In what formats is it published? Are you working on more adventures?
I’m working on a sequel, tentatively titled The Viper Amulet, which picks up a few hours after the end of Rubies of the Viper.
I encourage anybody with an interest in the first-century Roman world to visit my blog, THE PURPLE PARCHMENT.
—text copyright © Martha Marks—