A Literary World: An Interview with Elisabeth Storrs
A Literary World
An Interview with Elisabeth Storrs
My guest today is Australian author, Elisabeth Storrs, a writer with a passion for the history, art, and myths of the ancient world. After graduating from the University of Sydney in Arts Law, and having studied Classics, over the years Elisabeth has worked as a lawyer and corporate governance consultant. She is the former Deputy Chair of Writing NSW and the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA). In 2020, she helped establish the $100,000 ARA Historical Novel Prize. She also writes for the History Girls.
Welcome to a Literary World, Elisabeth. Tell us about your background? When did you decide to become an author?
I always loved to write from an early age. In fact, my mother sent off my first ‘novel’ to a publisher when I was eight without me knowing. I still have the very lovely rejection letter from an understanding but no doubt amused editor! I began writing seriously in my thirties when I figured I would never achieve my dream unless I set aside time in my diary to write. I was working as a lawyer back then (and caring for two young sons and elderly parents) so I disciplined myself to dedicate just two hours per week. It took me 10 years to write my first novel as a result. Over the years I have been able to devote more and more time to writing. I now have a trilogy – A Tale of Ancient Rome – under my belt. I am currently completing the first draft of my fourth novel set in WW2 Berlin.
What are your novels about and where are they set?
My trilogy, A Tale of Ancient Rome, consists of three books: The Wedding Shroud, The Golden Dice and Call to Juno. The books are set in very early Republican Rome at a time when Rome was a nascent city scrapping with other tribes in Italy. Rome’s major enemy at this time were the Etruscans whose society was sophisticated and cosmopolitan compared to the austere, self-righteous and belligerent Romans. Further, the Etruscans granted education, independence and sexual freedom to women. As a result, they were considered wicked and decadent by the rest of the ancient world.
The story arc is centred on a young Roman girl, Caecilia, who is married to an enemy nobleman to seal a truce. Determined to remain true to Roman ‘virtues’, she is forced to leave home to travel to his city and grapple with conflicting moralities while living among the ‘sinful’ Etruscans. Caecilia is soon seduced by her husband and the freedoms his society offers her but the wild, uninhibited Etruscan ways disturb her even though their religion offers her eternal life. Throughout the saga, Caecilia journeys from being a self-absorbed teenager thrust into an alien land to a strong mother committed to her husband, children and adopted city. In each book she faces choices – in The Wedding Shroud she must choose between Veii and love, or Rome and duty. In The Golden Dice she risks cutting ties with her Roman family who consider her a traitoress. Finally, in Call to Juno, she must determine if she’s prepared to exorcise the vestiges of the Roman within her by seeking her birthplace’s destruction, and surrendering her religious beliefs. In all three books I explore the themes of tolerance and prejudice, destiny vs self-determination while highlighting the lives of women in the ancient world.
What was the source of your inspiration?
As a lover of classical history, I was intrigued when I came across a photograph of a C7th BCE sarcophagus with a man and woman reclining on their bed in a tender embrace. The image of the lovers remained with me. I was determined to discover who these people were with their distinctive almond shaped eyes and straight nose and brow. What kind of ancient culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? Which ancient society revered women as much as men? The answer resulted in an obsession with the Etruscans that lasted over sixteen years. Further research revealed a little known story of a siege between the nascent Republican Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii. Incredibly, these societies were only situated 12 miles apart across the Tiber River; and so it fascinated me that merely by crossing a strip of water, you could move from the equivalent of the Dark Ages into something similar to the Renaissance.
What sort of research did the stories require?
Nearly all historical novelists talk about the value of ‘walking the ground’, namely, visiting the sites of their story. During the time I wrote The Wedding Shroud, I was not in a position to travel overseas. Family obligations bound me to home shores in Australia. Instead, I was reliant on history and art books to provide details of the customs, culture and religion of the two societies. To add to my difficulties, very few texts written by the Etruscans are extant because their civilization was destroyed by the Romans and Greeks. As a result I gained much of my inspiration and knowledge from interpreting Etruscan tomb art which depicts the spiritual and physical world of these people.
As The Wedding Shroud dealt more with Caecilia’s internal conflict, I was content to accept my lack of hands on research. This changed when planning the next two books because The Golden Dice and Call to Juno chronicle the ten year siege that ensued between the foes. It became important for me to understand the geography of the two opposing cities. With great excitement, I organised a trip to Italy to tread in the footsteps of my characters.
My time was limited but I was determined to see as much as I could of Rome, Veii and other Etruscan cities in Lazio. I located a private tour company who provided scholars and archaeologists as guides. These experts were able to impart invaluable insights. At last I could gaze directly on the murals and sculptures I had pored over in books. I was even privileged to visit tombs that were closed to the public. I remember my delight when my guide flicked on the lights to reveal the vivid, fragile paintings protected behind glass before plunging them once again into darkness to ensure they remained preserved in temperature-controlled chambers.
Additionally, over the sixteen years of writing the trilogy, I have discovered the wonderful online resource of JSTOR which enables me to access journal articles on any number of topics. I have also formed collegiate friendships with historians across the world.
Are the characters based on real people?
My protagonists are fictional but the story of the siege of Veii is chronicled in the accounts of Roman and Greek historians such as Livy and Plutarch. As such, I have included the ‘real’ character of Marcus Furius Camillus who is said to be the ‘second founder of Rome.’ Of course, Roman foundation myths were written by scholars centuries after the events without reference to any primary sources so their versions have to be read in that light. I enjoyed weaving my own story around these legendary events.
What do you think makes a standout historical novel?
An exceptional historical novel is one where the author invites the reader to recognise relationships and human nature (in all its many manifestations) which are constant across eras, while also highlighting differences by way of historical context. What I call a merging of ‘unfamiliar and familiar pasts’. The best historical fiction is immediate and vivid without research showing through to the detriment of pace and narrative flow. Finally it’s a book that can both quench your thirst for knowledge yet leave you hungering for more.
Can you tell us about your latest WIP?
My current work in progress, Treasured, is an extension of a ‘bottom drawer’ novel written over twenty years ago which explores the fate of ‘Priam’s Treasure’, a priceless hoard of jewelry from ancient Troy held in Berlin and threatened in the fall of the city in WWII. My research into the museum curator who protected it has led me to bizarre Nazi archaeology (think Raiders of the Lost Ark) as well as the disturbing role Himmler’s scholars played in underpinning the justification for Lebensraum and the Holocaust. The book has a lot of twists and turns as a young German woman is drawn into this sinister world while striving to protect her country’s national treasures from the ravages of war.
What is it that inspires you to write about WWII
Treasured was inspired by the story of Heinrich Schliemann who believed he could find the location of the mythical Troy by analyzing Homer’s epics. Schliemann not only located the city in 1870 but also unearthed the fabulous Priam’s Treasure which he promptly smuggled out of Turkey to Germany. (His Greek wife, Sophia, was photographed modelling the ‘Jewels of Helen’ which caused the equivalent of a media storm in the day.) The trove ultimately was displayed in the Museum of Pre-history and Early History in Berlin. As often happens, research led me to an entirely different story arc as I discovered the museum curator who protected the Trojan gold throughout WWII was a Nazi who conducted archaeological digs under the patronage of an SS research institute founded by Himmler. Suddenly my entire novel swapped focus and I’ve been absorbed with WWII history ever since.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing about WWII compared to Ancient Rome
Both eras have their challenges. Pre-history involves taking a deep swan dive (as Geraldine Brooks says) into a world where there are few primary sources. You are constantly looking at the conflicting views and interpretations of historians. You also need to look at artefacts and art with a fresh and enquiring gaze. Dealing with WWII is quite the opposite – there are too many primary sources! I am also struck by the concept of ‘unreliable memoirs’. It’s great to access so many personal written narratives but sometimes you need to judge whether a diarist has self-censored or written a self-serving account.
Who are your favourite authors?
I was first inspired to write historical fiction when I was a teenager after reading Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. I was impressed by her powerful and vivid prose together with her ability to weave historical detail into a compelling vision of the ancient world. Other authors who have influenced me include Margaret Atwood, Anita Diamant, Jim Crace, Hilary Mantel and Charlotte Bronte.
Do you have a special writing space?
I like to write at my kitchen table which has a view over my garden.
Is there a special time of day that you like to write?
I write throughout the day but my brain really kicks in around 2pm. Then I find it hard to stop to cook dinner a few hours later!
What is your favourite WWII movie
Can I name more than one? ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is an all time favourite even though it is heartrending. More recently I enjoyed ‘The Last Vermeer’ because it is relevant to my WIP insofar as it deals with Nazi art theft. I thought it was amusing the Dutch art dealer (played by Guy Pearce) managed to swindle Hermann Goering!
Excerpt from The Wedding Shroud
Her whole world was orange.
Shifting her head to one side, feeling the weight of the veil, hearing it rustle, her eyes strained to focus through the fine weave.
Orange. The vegetable smell of the dye had been faint when she’d first donned the wedding veil, but now its scent filled her nostrils and mouth, the cloth pressing against her face as she walked to where the guests were waiting.
The atrium was crowded. So many people. Shaking, legs unsteady, Caecilia found she needed to lean against her Aunt Aurelia. Through the haze of the veil she could barely make out the faces of the ten official witnesses or that of the most honored guest, the chief pontiff of Rome.
And she could not see Drusus. Perhaps he could not bear to witness her surrender.
“Stand straight, you’re too heavy,” hissed her aunt, pinching the girl’s arm.
Biting her lip, Caecilia was led forward. The groom stood before the wedding altar, ready to make the nuptial offering. Her Uncle Aemilius smiled broadly beside him.
Aunt Aurelia, acting as presiding matron, deposited her charge with a flourish, then fussed with the bride’s tunic. She was reveling in the attention and smiled vacuously at her guests, but the girl was aware that, for so crowded a room, silence dominated.
Drawing back her veil, Caecilia gazed upon the stranger who was to become her husband. To her surprise, his black hair was close-cropped and he was beardless. She was used to the long tresses of the men of Rome—and their odor. This man smelled differently; the scent of bathwater mixed with sandalwood clung to his body.
Head bowed, she tried in vain to blot out his existence no more than a handbreadth from her side, but she need not have bothered. He made no attempt to study either her face or form.
“The auspices were taken at sunrise,” declared Aemilius. “The gods confirm the marriage will be blessed.”
Bride and groom sat upon chairs covered with sheepskin and waited while the pontiff offered spelt cake to Jupiter.
There was a pause as they stood and circled the altar, then the priest signaled Aurelia to join the couple’s hands.
Caecilia wished she could stop shaking. She had to be brave. She had to be dignified. But her body would not obey her. She was still quaking when Aurelia seized her right hand roughly and thrust it into the groom’s.
The warmth and strength of his grip surprised her. Her palm was clammy and it occurred to her that her hand would slip from his grasp. Slowly, she turned to face him. He was old; lines of age plowed his forehead and creased his eyes. He must be nearly two score years. What was he like, this man? Her husband?
Aware that she should be making her vows to him in silence, she instead prayed fervently that the gods would take pity and not make her suffer too long or too hard in his keeping.
His hand still encompassed hers. Before releasing her fingers, he squeezed them slightly, the pressure barely perceptible. She held her breath momentarily, amazed that the only mark of comfort she had received all day had been bestowed upon her by a foe.
She scanned his face. His eyes were dark and almond-shaped, like the hard black olives from her aunt’s pantry. His skin was dark, too, sun dark. A jagged scar ran down one side of his nose to his mouth. He was far from handsome.
His toga and tunic were of a rich dark blue, making all stare at him for a difference other than his race. Yet his shoulders were held in a martial pose, no less a man for his gaudiness, it seemed, than the Roman patricians around him in their simple purple-striped robes. And the bridal wreath upon his head could have been a circlet of laurel leaves, a decoration for bravery, not nuptials.
A golden bulla hung around his neck, astounding her. For a man did not wear such amulets once he’d stepped over the threshold to manhood. Only children wore such charms in Rome. He wore many rings, too, but one in particular was striking. Heavy gold set with onyx. No Roman would garland himself with so much jewelry.
There was one other thing that was intriguing, making her wonder if his people found it hard to bid farewell childhood. His arms and his legs seemed hairless, as if they had been shaven completely.
Perfumed, short-cropped hair, no beard. Caecilia truly beheld a savage.
Once again she steeled herself, repeating silently: “I am Aemilia Caeciliana. Today I am Rome. I must endure
Thank you for sharing your writing life with us, Elisabeth. I am also intrigued by the Roman and Etruscan world and their art, and like you, I do find the image on the sarcophagus evocative. I am looking forward to your WWII novel. Art and Nazi ideology, an intriguing mix.
On behalf of my readers, I wish you continued success.
You can connect with Elisabeth via her website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram You can find all of Elisabeth’s books in her A Tale of Ancient Rome saga on Amazon.