LJ Trafford is one of the authors selected to write for Rubicon, a collection of short stories set in Ancient Rome. Her books cover the turbulent ‘Year of the Four Emperors’, which followed the death of Nero in AD 68. Her short story for Rubicon, The Wedding, is set a little earlier, when Nero was still alive.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been writing and what other jobs have you had?
As a child I had a desperate desire to become an author. Not a writer, but an author.
I set about achieving this ambition by half-arsedly coming up with stories and never writing them down (until I started on my first book, Palatine.)
In the meantime I’ve had various jobs, including a stint as a tour guide in the Lake District Wordsworth industry. Though this left me with a life long hatred of that poem and those flowers (cough) daffodils (cough), it did train me up in the art of telling a good story. That and the joy of making people laugh for money.
I have been successfully starting books and actually ending them for ten years now. The first completed novel felt like a fluke. But I’ve written four now, so I might just be getting the hang of it somewhat.
I like to keep my writing life separate from my ordinary life. I have a – sensible – alter ego who does whizzy things with databases and constructs beautiful graphs for a London based organisation, while ‘LJ’ writes funny books about Romans and obsesses about the Emperor Domitian all over social media. Occasionally the two meet and it all gets a bit messy.
What is it about Rome that inspires you?
The cor-blimey element of it. There are no half measures about Roman emperors: either they’re reforming and rebuilding the heck out of Rome and conquering everything in their path, or they’re embarking on ten-hour orgies, indulging in unmentionable behaviour (which all good Roman historians will list in eye-popping glory) and thinking they’re divine. Sometimes both. So really I admire their ability to cram a lot of living in. Probably because telly hadn’t been invented then.
What led you to write this story for Rubicon?
A delusional emperor who thinks a eunuch is his wife, whilst not having an heir in place, I imagined, was quite a challenge for the palace staff. Do you puncture the delusion at the risk of angering the emperor? Or do you go along with it, at the risk of growing dissent against the emperor? I wanted to explore their solution to the problem: getting Nero quickly remarried!
Can you tell us about your other work inspired by Rome?
I have written four books that cover the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, AD 69: Palatine, Galba’s Men, Otho’s Regret and Vitellius’ Feast. It is a period rich with battles, massacres, political back stabbing, literal back stabbing and some very bad decisions made all round.
Perfect fiction material.
I write from the viewpoint of the slaves and ex-slaves of the palace, because they are on the front line of all this chaos. It is they who have to choose the right side at the right time and fight for survival. In a nutshell, I’ve rewritten Tacitus’s Histories with all the bits he should have put in – but didn’t. In his elite class of Senators the lives of slaves were not worth recording and sausage/penis gags were socially unacceptable. So I’ve done him a service really.
I’ve also written a short story, The Wine Boy, set in the Emperor Tiberius’s reign. It was my first work to receive a one-star review and thus I am obscenely proud of it.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
The finished product mostly. Writing a book is a hard, hard slog. But I love that shiny paperback in my hand. I also love it when readers contact me to tell me how much they enjoyed my book, that gets me through the dark, dark days of editing.
If you were transported back to the time your story is set, who is the first person you would want to talk to and why?
Nero’s favourite eunuch, Sporus. He has all the best gossip in the palace plus a good eye for fashion. I could really do with a make over.
What would you bring back from ancient Rome with you?
I think we’ve all wondered what Roman food tastes like. So I’m bringing back a dish invented by the Emperor Vitellius. The ingredients are: “livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingoes and the milt of lampreys”. For info, milt of lampreys is eel sperm. Yum.
If there was one event in the period you could witness (in perfect safety) what would it be?
I would like to see a Nero performance. He gets a lot of sneering from our sources about his singing and poetry. I’d like to see whether they were justified or whether he was a potential winner of Rome’s Got Talent.
What are you writing at the moment?
I am writing a guidebook entitled How to Survive in Ancient Rome. It was pitched to me as ‘Horrible Histories for Grownups’. So expect top facts and fart gags aplenty.
How important is it for you to be part of a community of writers, and why?
Writing is a very lonesome job and, like sex, you never know if you’re doing it right. So it helps to have people who understand the horror of a first draft and can talk you through it. Also I find historical fiction writers super supportive of each other’s work. It’s a nice gang to be a member of.
Where can readers find out more about your books?
LJ Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series, set in the tumultuous years 68–69.
This interview was first published in Rubicon, the HWA and Sharpe Books collection of ten short stories by ten leading authors who write about Ancient Rome. Each story is accompanied by an interview with the author.
See more about Rubicon and a complete list of the short stories and their authors.
Bust of Nero: photo by Carol Raddato via Flickr