Robert Fabbri talks to bestselling author Lindsey Davis on the publication of her 30th novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed Lindsey ’s new book, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, and finished it in two sittings over a weekend. Because I don’t normally read other books set in the same time that I write, so as not to be influenced by another writer’s version of characters we might share, I was new to the series. I did not find that a problem at all and was very quickly drawn into protagonist Flavia’s world. I asked Lindsey about the book and her writing.
What do you consider to be the essential points in telling a back-story to a new reader without irritating your regular ones?
Obviously the first thing is to avoid peppering the book with asterisks and ‘See Biggles Flies East’, ‘See Biggles Flies West’ etc. I think it’s important not to make new readers feel daunted by the size of the backlist one is tempting them to go to… I suppose I try to do it in small doses, perhaps with a slightly different slant in the new telling.
When you introduced Flavia into the Falco series did you plan to develop her into a leading character or was it something that happened organically?
No, she was just a background character who might easily have been left behind in Britain. Once she was raped by a brothel-keeper (unplanned, but it grew out of the plot), Helena Justina was drawn to saving her, and so was I. Then Albia became a stroppy teenaged girl, with which I identified, so her role increased in several ways. When I wanted to do a ‘spin off’ series, I considered several alternatives, but she was the jolliest.
Having had a male protagonist for so long do you find it refreshing to now be seeing Rome through a woman’s eyes? What differences have you noticed?
Yes, I had been a man for 20 years. I wanted a change. I am enjoying it, but I don’t find the change profound. I’m simply viewing the world through a different character’s eyes. Albia is female but all my books have a strong female lead. There are subtle alterations in viewpoint not only because she is a woman but because it’s the reign of a very different emperor and Albia is an outsider, coming from Britain.
In all your research have you ever come across a real-life Flavia or Falco?
Flavia has a very modern voice within the constraints of Roman society; obviously that’s a conscious decision on your part. What reasons did you have for making it so?
I assume that to themselves the Romans sounded ‘modern’. I avoid anachronisms that would disturb the flow of the story but from the start the Falco series was a deliberate spoof of modern ‘gumshoe’ novels so it had their tone. I do not, in any case, believe that the streetwise people I write about talked in the convoluted clause structure of Cicero. I take my lead from graffiti on tavern walls.
I particularly liked the community that you constructed around the local area of the Hesperides and thought it a very authentic mixture of Roman characters that contrasted well with the inhabitants of the Aventine; do you have a favourite area of Rome, not necessarily mentioned in this book, that you especially enjoy taking your characters to and what attracts you to it?
Well, I suppose the Aventine is my favourite. There is a scene in the last Falco book, ‘Nemesis’ where he happens to ride back over the Aventine after an exhausting experience outside Rome, and dwells on its familiar flavour. I realised then how much I had missed it myself.
Research is key to writing in any historical era and is always ongoing. What are your favourite sources and what modern works do you find the most useful?
Oh lord, Robert! I have been doing this for thirty years, so I use so many I can’t pinpoint favourites. I was taught to hunt for any and all sources that exist, primary and secondary; I even use general textbooks or magazine articles on geography, weather, dogs, marble, whatever is useful to a particular plot. I have assembled a library of classics and modern works. Some are very good, some are rubbish, whatever their dear academic or ancient authors believe. What I use most regularly are things like maps of the city, encyclopedias of basic Roman ‘stuff’ such as weights and measures or the calendar, and a couple of collections of source material. The bedrock of the political background tends to be Suetonius on the three Flavian Emperors.
When you’re in writing mode, how do you structure your day?
Hell, I don’t. Might as well have a 9-5 job! I’ve turned in a book a year, for 30 years. That’s structure enough.
Brian Aldiss claimed that Agatha Christie told him that she wrote her books up to the last chapter, then decided who the most unlikely suspect was, after which she would go back and make the necessary changes to frame that person. Do you plan out your plots meticulously, do you allow for some freefall or do you take yourself completely by surprise like Ms Christie?
Every one is different. (That’s deliberate; I’m not writing cosies that are all identical). Sometimes I know whodunnit, eg when it was a disgruntled writer topping their publisher. Having no idea at all is scary, so I tend to know even though I haven’t mentioned it in the synopsis. Over meticulous planning would bore me, so things do emerge in the telling. But I write straight through with very little redrafting so I wouldn’t want to have to go back and adjust clues. For one thing, you get in a tangle and errors creep in.
When you find time to read for leisure what do you normally gravitate to?
I allow myself huge amounts of leisure though I don’t read enough except for work. When I leave the computer I tend to do different things nowadays, TV if I’m zonked out, or gardening and handicrafts. A lot of my reading is historical biography, all periods. Since I returned to the Midlands, which has a very rich cultural life, I have resumed going to the theatre and concerts with friends, and it’s opened up a whole new lot of ‘places of interest’ to visit.
Do you have plans to have Flavia and Falco working together on a case?
No. Who would be in charge? Who would narrate it? How many damn characters would be wandering about now they both have their own home lives? I never do what other writers would. For instance, we shall never find out who Albia’s real parents were.