Blog 113 26/8/2022 A Literary World. An interview with author Alison Morton about her latest novel, Julia Prima.
A Literary World
An interview with author Alison Morton about the launch of her latest novel, Julia Prima.
My guest today on A Literary World, is Alison Morton, an author I’ve known since the time I published my very first novel. Alison writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her nine-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution, and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue.
She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.
Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story. Having already written nine successful books in the Roma Nova series, her latest, Julia Prima, goes right back to the beginning – to the founders of Roma Nova. Let’s find out why she did this.
Welcome to A Literary World, Alison. What made you want to write about the founders of Roma Nova?
The story of Julia Bacausa and Lucius Apulius has always been lurking in the background since the first book, INCEPTIO, when Karen/Carina fled to the safety of the Roma Novan legation. Gaia Memmia, the legation officer, is helping her adapt:
She gave me a kids’ history book that illustrated how Apulius and his four daughters had founded Roma Nova at the end of the fourth century. I laughed at the heroic little cartoon characters waving their swords around, but Gaia took it all seriously. Descended from the Julii and Flavians, both tough political families, according to Gaia, Apulius had married a Celt from Noricum. Although Romanised for several generations, women in her family made decisions, fought in battles and managed property.
That was over ten years ago! Although I never planned to write a whole novel, the need to tell the foundation story has crept up on me year by year…
Why did you choose to use this area for your setting as opposed to elsewhere?
Noricum in AD 370 was a well-established Roman province, ever since the first century AD, yet still had many proud Celtic traditions, especially ones where women were more used to taking the lead and organising families, property and inheritance. Virunum, the capital city of the southern part (Noricum mediterraneum) was Julia’s home and a bustling city, even in the late 4th century. My heroine needed to be Roman, yet have that measure of subversiveness, reinforced by a mother from a tribe across the Danube outside the Roman Empire, so her home had to be away from the home country of Italia.
Why did Roma Nova survive when the rest of the Roman Empire declined?
First of all, the founding group of Roma Novans found a secure mountain stronghold and were led by battle-hardened soldiers. Forced by barbarian attacks to draft sisters and daughters to put on armour and carry weapons alongside their men to defend their homeland and their way of life, the new colony changed its social structure.
As the men and younger women men constantly defended the borders of the new settlement, older women took over the social, political and economic roles, weaving new power and influence networks based on family structures. Moreover, Roma Novans remained true to their traditional Roman values and religion as it bound them together as they struggled to survive. Like their ancestors, these tough colonists’ response to threats to their existence was robust.
But let’s not forget hard economics. Roma Nova’s continued existence has been favoured by three factors: the discovery and exploitation of high grade silver in their mountains, their efficient technology and the ability to feed themselves from crops and cattle thriving in the mountain valleys.
What sort of research did you undertake for the setting?
Luckily, I’d travelled all over Europe when I was a little younger (and still do!) and know the Alpine areas of Austria and Italy as well as the Tuscany and Umbria regions of Italy. And I’ve walked round a lot of Rome’s hard pavements, so the countryside was familiar.
But making the street scenes and the farmed landscape of the 4th century authentic brings in the writer’s imagination fuelled by hard research. The most important thing to remember is that Ancient Rome lasted 1,229 years in the West. A great deal had changed even by AD 370 even from the classical period of the first two centuries AD.
We know our own world has changed out of recognition from, say, the 1950s, yet many core elements are still there. Moving history on is something all historical fiction writers should be aware of, and I paid particular attention to those changes. By AD 370, togas had all but been abandoned along with the three-dining-couch convention and, horror of horrors, 4th century Roman soldiers wore trousers!
What sort of research did you undertake for the character of Julia Bacusa and Lucius Apulius? Are they based on real people? I find the names interesting; can you explain how you came up with them?
Throughout the Roma Nova series, there are references to ‘the founders’, i.e. Julia and Lucius and, of course, to the Mitela family. So I had the names already! Julia is an archetypal Roman woman’s name and she takes her surname from her father’s. Lucius is a traditional Roman man’s name – none of the 4th century modernist names for the Apulii! His surname is made up. I had scoured the Romans gens (family) lists to make sure I wasn’t libelling any famous Romans! With Lucius from an aristocratic Italian family and Julia with her Romanised Celtic background, there was natural conflict. I confess to being whimsical about her red hair; her many times descendants had to get it from somewhere! More seriously, both are products of a still paternalistic Roman society, yet one on the brink of change.
And no, although I’ve lifted traits from people I know, none of the characters is based completely on real people except those marked in the dramatis personae in JULIA PRIMA.
The most important thing is to make characters authentic people living naturally in their environment, however uncomfortable some aspects may seem to us.
What are your favourite areas of research?
Well, clothes always fascinate us as they are an expression of personality as well as social fashion and availability of fabrics, leather and jewellery. But so are people’s houses, jobs and transport – very similar to our concerns today! Behaviour, social conventions – what’s expected and what’s rude – can surprise us as can the systems of law, justice and money.
But most fascinating is how people thought, what they valued, what they were afraid of and what they revered. We know Romans were family minded, for better or for worse, concerned about property and the majority were incredibly superstitious. Whichever class they came from, most were convinced the Roman way was the best way, especially if you came from the home country, Italia. The barbarians were there for the Romans to civilise and exploit. Saying that, the Roman Empire was surprisingly multi-cultural and little account was paid to ethnicity; the Romans were much more concerned about class and social background throughout the centuries of their society’s long existence.
But all research is fascinating, from Roman pearl earrings and marriage ceremonies to the size of Praetorian barrack blocks, as each thing you discover casts a light on human behaviour.
Blurb for JULIA PRIMA
“You should have trusted me. You should have given me a choice.”
AD 370, Roman frontier province of Noricum. Neither wholly married nor wholly divorced, Julia Bacausa is trapped in the power struggle between the Christian church and her pagan ruler father.
Tribune Lucius Apulius’s career is blighted by his determination to stay faithful to the Roman gods in a Christian empire. Stripped of his command in Britannia, he’s demoted to the backwater of Noricum – and encounters Julia.
Unwittingly, he takes her for a whore. When confronted by who she is, he is overcome with remorse and fear. Despite this disaster, Julia and Lucius are drawn to one another by an irresistible attraction.
But their intensifying bond is broken when Lucius is banished to Rome. Distraught, Julia gambles everything to join him. Following her heart’s desire brings danger she could never have envisaged…
Thank you, Alison. It’s an intriguing world you’ve created and I applaud your in-depth research. It shines through. I know from your earlier books that they are fast paced and action-packed. I’ve always said, Roma Nova would make a great TV series. For my readers, I’m including an earlier interview I did with Alison on building an alternative worrld.
Buying links for JULIA PRIMA: Ebook (multiple retailers): https://books2read.com/JULIAPRIMA
Social media links:
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: https://www.alison-morton.com/
Facebook author page:https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor
Alison’s writing blog:https://alisonmortonauthor.com/
Alison’s Amazon page:https://www.amazon.com.au/s?k=Alison-Morton&geniuslink=true
Newsletter sign-up: https://www.alison-morton.com/newsletter/