Caroline Lawrence Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Caroline Lawrence

Caroline Lawrence

An interview with Caroline Lawrence

Some Frequently Asked Questions addressed to Roman Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence
 

My book is signed by you, and has something written in a foreign language. What does it mean?
I try to sign each of my books or short stories with a different Latin motto. Here's what they mean:

  • Cave canem in The Thieves of Ostia means 'Beware of the dog'
  • Fortes fortuna iuvat in The Secrets of Vesuvius means 'Fortune favours the brave'
  • Volare! in The Pirates of Pompeii means 'to fly!'
  • Lacrimae rerum in The Assassins of Rome means 'events have tears' or 'sad things happen'
  • Morbo medeor in The Dolphins of Laurentum means 'I am healed of my disease'
  • Pater noster in the short story Bread and Circuses means 'Our father'
  • Carpe diem in The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina means 'Seize the day' or 'Go for it!'
  • Fiat lux in the short story The Case of the Missing Coin means 'Let there be light'
  • Ars longa... in The Enemies of Jupiter means 'the skill lasts a long time...'
  • Uri, vinciri, verberari... in the short story Jonathan vs Ira means 'to be burned, fettered, flogged...'
  • Habet! in The Gladiators from Capua means 'he's been hit!'
  • Hectora credas in The Colossus of Rhodes means 'you would think he was Hector'

Where were you born?
I was born in London, England; but I'm American and grew up in California (Bakersfield and Stanford.)

Which school did you go to?
I went to Gunn High in Palo Alto, California.

What was your best subject at school?
My best subject in school was art. I loved drawing and it was the first subject I ever got an 'A' in! (I did the drawings for all the bookplates on this site)

Did you study Latin at school?
No! Though I would have loved it. My father was a French teacher and I begged him to teach me French but he was too tired from teaching 13-16 year olds. (In America at my school you didn't do any languages when you were 9.) So it wasn't until I was 19 years old that I started to study first Greek and then Latin. I used to prefer Greek but now I like Latin better. Mainly because I think we are more 'Latin' than 'Greek' in today's world.

How old are you?
Ancient! (in Roman terms).

When is your birthday?
May 24th, 19 .... wait a minute! very clever!

What sort of family do you have?
A grown up son named Simon and my husband Richard.

Does your son like your books?
He would probably shrug and say, 'They're OK.'

Do you have any pets?
When I was a kid I had a dog called Duchess. Later we were adopted by a cat called Mojo. Now we don't have any pets but we have about ten different species of bird right outside our windows!

Where do you live?
A riverside flat in London, England.

Where do you write?
On a blueberry iMac in my study in my riverside flat facing a wall covered with pictures.

Do you have any hobbies?
Jogging by the river, watching films and surfing the net.

What's your favorite food?
I love salads, lemons and... chocolate.  And that's why I could never survive in Roman times: NO CHOCOLATE!

What's your favorite film?
Star Wars - a New Hope, and my favorite Roman film is A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum.

What's your favorite TV program?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I hear that you actually appeared in an episode of Buffy?
Yes! I am in the crowd scenes of several season 4 episodes of Buffy. The best place to see us is to watch 'Hush'. Right after the Gentlemen's heads explode there is a quick bird's-eye-view of the Sunnydale campus. Freeze the frame. Slightly to the left and below the centre of the screen is a man in a dark green shirt wearing a bright straw hat. That is my husband Richard. On his left is a woman with fluffy dark hair, wearing a pale pink shirt with tails. That's ME! We are supposed to be Sunnydale students! *hee*

Who has inspired you and who do you admire?
I adore the men and women whose music brings joy into my life; but I most admire Joss Whedon, the screenwriter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and John Truby, another Hollywood script doctor. I think they are the most brilliant writers living today.

What kind of music do you like?
I love music which I call West Coast Jazz and my husband calls 'Lounge'. My favorite jazz guitarists are Larry Carlton, George Benson, Chris Standring, Jeff Golub, Lee Ritenour, Martin Taylor and Joyce Cooling. My favorite jazz pianists are Bill Evans and David Benoit. And I love jazz trumpet, in particular Rick Braun, Chris Botti, and of course Miles Davis!

What's your favorite animal?
A cheetah on land and a dolphin in water.

Are you afraid of anything?
Only cheese.

What's your favorite color?
Red

Where in the world have you dreamed of going but never have gone?
East Africa

Did you write small books in your spare time when you were young?
No.

Do you write a title and then plan a story from that or do you plan the story first and then make up the title?
Usually the story comes first but sometimes I have to twist the story to work in the title my publisher wants! (e.g. the pirate song in 'The Pirates of Pompeii')

Do you plan the story first and then write out a draft or do you write off the top of your head and then edit it on the computer?
I've learned ALWAYS to do a thorough plan and chapter outline before I start writing! The inspiration comes later!

Are they going to make your books into films?
I hope so! But Steven Spielberg hasn't been returning my calls...

Did you always want to be a writer?
No. When I was young I wanted to be a mini-skirted ensign on the starship Enterprise and to boldly go where no man has gone before!

I just wanted to ask erm, do they REALLY have star trek conventions?????
Aye, Captain! ;)

What inspired you to be a writer?
Three things:

  1. I love reading books because...
    • books teach you how to live.
    • books teach you how to love.
    • books encourage you and give you hope.
    • books lift you up when you are down.
    • books take you to places and times you could never otherwise visit.

       
  2. I always thought being a writer would be the best job because...
    • you are your own boss.
    • you get paid to make up stories.
    • you can travel, read a book, go to a film... and call it research!
    • you get to touch people's lives.
       
  3. I thought it would be great to be able to say 'I'm a writer.'  And it is! :)
     

When did you decide that you wanted to become a writer?
I've wanted to be a writer off and on throughout my life, but about fifteen years ago I really determined to do it. This meant reading lots of books on writing and getting up early to put in an hour of writing a day before I went to work as a teacher. To see my favorite books on writing, go here.

Did you have a job before you became a writer?
I was a Primary School Teacher. I taught Latin, French and art.

Was it hard to find a publisher?
Not really. My husband (who has worked on non-fiction books) already had an agent named Teresa. She did all the hard work of sending my book to suitable publishers. In the end Orion bought six books on the strength of the first book one. So no, apart from the ten years of getting up early to write every day it wasn't too hard. Visit my page called How to Get Published.

Did the first book you ever wrote get published?
No. It was a novel for young adults called The Scribe. It was about a boy in a monastery in 6th century Byzantium. I also have a non-fiction book and a screenplay gathering dust in a drawer somewhere! I read somewhere that it is usually your fourth book that gets published. That's because you can read as many books as you like, but you don't really learn how to write until you do it.

I want to be a writer, too. Do you have any tips you could give me?
I have a whole page of them! Go here.

Which is your favorite out of all your books that you have written so far?
The Pirates of Pompeii or Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina. I like romance!

Who is your favorite character in your books?
That's a hard question: I guess it would have to be Flavia Gemina, but I love them all, even the villains!

Do you base your characters on real people?
Yes, some more, some less. I also base characters on jazz musicians. For example, I imagine that Simeon in The Assassins of Jerusalem looks like 'Slim Man' a jazz bass player and singer from Baltimore.

Where do you get your ideas from?
From my whole life, everything, people I've know, movies I've seen, books I've read, dreams I've had. Also from myths and Greek vases and the places I visit. I get ideas listening to jazz and looking at art. Finally, one of my best sources is the wealth of literature by Latin authors who lived during Flavia's time: Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, Statius, Martial, Juvenal, Valerius Flaccus and also the Latin and Greek poetry that an educated Roman boy (and sometimes girl) would have studied: Virgil, Ovid, Catullus, Homer, Apollonius, and Apollodorus. There are lots more!

How do you come up with so many ideas for names, places and especially Scuto, Flavia's dog?
That is a brilliant question! Scuto is named after my nephew Nicholas (now 11) because his nickname used to be 'Scooter'. But scuto also means shield in Latin so it's the perfect name for a watchdog, (even if he's not a brilliant watchdog). And Nipur is named after my other nephew Andrew (now 11) because his nickname used to be 'Nipper'! Lots of the other names have secret Latin meanings.

I recently heard you speak. Where do you get all those artifacts?
Every time I go to a museum, or to a different country to do "research", I try to find a replica Roman artefact. That's why I have so many! If you want to start a collection, one of the best places to start is the British Museum. That's where I got my replica coins, my charioteer clay oil-lamp and the little green *Egyptian* glass bottle for scented oil and gladiator scrapings!

How old are the characters in the Roman Mysteries?
Here are the ages of characters in the Roman Mysteries on 1 March AD 80 and also their dates of birth:
Rhoda 4 (born 76 AD)
Hyacinth 8 (born 71 AD)
Rizpah 8 (born 71 AD)
Lupus 9 (born 71 AD) 15 February
Flavia 10 (born 69 AD) 16 June
Jonathan 11 (born 68 AD) 15 September
Nubia 11 (born 68 AD) 18 August
Aulus Jr 12 (born 67 AD) 1 August
Miriam 14 (born 65 AD) 15 July
Julia (Titus' daughter) 14 (born 65 AD)
Pliny the Younger - 18 (born 61 AD)
Flaccus - 19 (born 61 AD) 2 January
Aristo - 21 (born 58 AD) 3 July
Caudex - 28 (born 52 AD)
Sisyphus - 27 (born 52 AD) 1 September
Domitian - 28 (born 51 AD) 24 October
Susannah - 30 (born 50 AD) 1 March
Marcus& Gaius - 31 (born 48 AD) 24 May
Felix - 34 (born 45 AD) 13 March
Statius - 34 (born 45 AD) 1 April
Cynthia - 35 (born 44 AD) 28 April
Alma - 36 (born 43 AD)
Titus - 40 (born 39 AD) 30 December
Polla Argentaria - 40 (born 39 AD)
Marcus Valerius Martialis - 41 (born 39 AD)
Josephus - 41 (born 38 AD)
Mordecai 42 (born 37 AD) 11 February
Senator Cornix - 45 (born 34 AD)
Lusca (the old woman of Ostia) - 107 (born 27 BC)

On the front of your books who does the drawings?
Three clever artists combine their talents to produce the Roman Mysteries covers:
Fred van Deelen did the mosaic portraits of the four friends based on my drawings.
Peter Sutton does the exciting images on different colors (based on my suggestions).
Richard Carr puts it all together with nice composition and lettering.

If you want to know lots more fun things about my book covers then have me come to your school to talk about 'How a Book Cover is Designed' Your teacher can book me here.

Which was your favorite book when you were a child?
I loved My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. Oh, and the Nancy Drew mysteries.

What are your favorite books now?
I still love My Family and Other Animals. Zorba the Greek is my comfort book. And at the moment I'm re-reading the fantastic sea novels of Patrick O'Brian.

Do you know any other children's writers?
In the past three years I have met Melvin Burgess, Francesca Simon, Morris Gleitzman, Anne Fine, Philip Pullman, Marcus Sedgwick, Terence Blacker, Richard Brassey, Quentin Blake, Celia Rees, Eoin Colfer, Chris D'Lacey, Tim Bowler, Avi, Michael Morpurgo and Garth Nix! I have also become friends with Cliff McNish, author of the brilliant Doomspell Trilogy, Kevin Crossley-Holland, author of the sublime Arthur Triology, and Robert Muchamore, author of the thrilling Cherub series, beginning with The Recruit.

How long does it take you to write a book?
6 months on average.

Have you got any special ambitions?
Yes I have always wanted an Oscar.

Please can you send me a list of the other books you have written?
There's good news and there's bad news.  The bad news is that the Roman Mysteries are the only books I've ever written (that have been published).  The good news is that I plan to write lots more in the series.

How many books are you planning to publish?
In this series (The Roman Mysteries) I would like to produce 18.
Here are the titles as I have planned them so far:
1 The Thieves of Ostia - the friends meet and solve their first mystery OUT NOW!
2 The Secrets of Vesuvius - a riddle and danger as Vesuvius erupts! OUT NOW!
3 The Pirates of Pompeii - who's taking kids from the refugee camp? OUT NOW!
4 The Assassins of Rome - Jonathan's search takes him to Rome OUT NOW!
5 The Dolphins of Laurentum - sunken treasure and Lupus's past! OUT NOW!
6 The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina - romance and mystery in Ostia OUT NOW!
7 The Enemies of Jupiter - plague and fire in Rome, early AD 80... OUT NOW!
8 The Gladiators from Capua - opening of the Colosseum, AD 80 OUT NOW!
9 The Colossus of Rhodes - the four friends take a cruise in May... APR 2005
10 The Fugitive from Corinth - ...then they travel around Greece OCT 2005
11 The Sirens of Surrentum - the Villa Limona for romance & mystery APR 2006
12 The Charioteer of Delphi - a famous racehorse goes missing OCT 2006
13 The Girl from Jerusalem - back in Ostia, maybe to Judaea APR 2007
14 The Beggar of Volubilis - off to Morocco, Carthage and Spain OCT 2007
15 The Scribe from Alexandria - Egypt and Nubia APR 2008
16 The Prophet from Ephesus - the four go to Turkey & Asia Minor OCT 2008
17 The Legionary from Londinium - the friends go to Britannia - APR 2009
18 The Man from Pomegranate Street - dramatic end to the series! OCT 2009

'A dramatic end to the series!' Does that mean there will be no more Roman Mysteries? Or will there be another series?
I think after 18 mysteries Flavia and her friends will have earned a break! Don't you?
But I plan to write until I drop... so yes, I'm sure there will be more books after The Roman Mysteries. And I hope they will be even better!

I was wondering if Jonathan ever dies because somebody said that they almost cried when they where reading the part about Jonathan's grave?
Here is a secret: Jonathan CAN'T die because his portrait is on the covers of all the books! So don't worry... until the last book that is. Then ANYTHING could happen! ;-)

Are you thinking of writing other types of books?
After I finish the Roman Mysteries I might write 'The Qartmin Trilogy' about monks, stylites and demons in 6th century Byzantium! (see above 'Did the first book you wrote...')

Will the Roman Mysteries be published in other countries?
So far the rights have been sold to these countries: America, China, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Thailand.

What tips would you give someone who wants to be a writer?
The ONE thing you need to be a writer is... SELF-DISCIPLINE!
You have to start doing it, keep doing it, and never give up!

What inspired you to write books?
I always felt a twinge of jealousy when I met people who were writers. Or heard that someone was writing a book. One day I realized why: I wanted to be a writer, too! What inspired me was that I love books and stories more than almost anything in the world. What would we do without them?

What was your ambition as a child?
When I was 11 I wanted to be an officer on the Starship Enterprise and travel in outer space. (see above!) Later I wanted to be an astronomer (so that I could travel in space) but I wasn't good at maths. Later I wanted to study baboons (so I could travel to Africa and live in the bush) but I wasn't good at biology. Later I wanted to study ancient Rome and Greece and I WAS good at learning languages! So that's what I did until I decided to try to become a writer about 15 years ago.

Did anyone help you with the Roman mysteries?
Yes, I have lots of experts who help me on the historical details and read over my drafts. But 99% I do myself.

Why did you pick Rome for your books and not somewhere else?
I actually picked Ostia, the port of Rome, because it would have had lots of fascinating people visiting it and you could embark from there to anywhere in the Roman world. Also I visited Ostia for one afternoon when I was 16 and I never forgot it.

If you could be any of the characters in your books, who would it be?
It would be Flavia Gemina, of course!

Out of your books which one is your favorite?
Out of all the books I have written I think 'The Pirates of Pompeii' is my favorite because I had so much fun writing it.

Why did you choose Ostia as the setting for book one?
I visited Ostia Antica for one afternoon when I was 16 years old and I thought it was beautiful. I never forgot it, and when I decided to write mysteries set in Roman times I thought my characters should live in Ostia, because it is so beautiful. Also, they could meet interesting people from all over the Roman world and easily sail to other lands.

What parts of The Thieves of Ostia are historically accurate (true)?
Almost all the details of Roman life are true though I have not introduced any real historical figures. They come into all the books after The Thieves of Ostia.

How do you choose the title of a book?
My editor Judith and I compromised and made an agreement early on. In each title there would be one 'exciting' word (for her) and one 'classical' word (for me).

What made you choose certain words, like 'jackass'?
I think about every single word I use in my books, especially the names, which often mean things. The word 'jackass' or asine comes from a real graffiti found not in Pompeii but in Ostia. It was probably a Christian password at a time when it was dangerous to profess any faith which seemed to oppose Roman rule.

Why did you choose violent events for The Thieves of Ostia?
Things like that really did happen, and I want to show Roman life as it was. Another reason is that I wanted my books to appeal to boys, not just to girls. And boys like a spot of violence!

Which of your books did you enjoy writing the most? Which one was the hardest to write?
The hardest book to write was 'The Secrets of Vesuvius' because I had to get so many historical facts exactly right and also because the opponent was not human, but a volcano! That's the last time I make that mistake! You might be interested to know that I wrote 43 drafts of that book... Well, they say 'Writing is rewriting!'
The book I most enjoyed writing was 'The Pirates of Pompeii', mainly because I fell in love with the Villa Limona and its inhabitants. The only time I've ever had to be dragged away from my computer was while writing 'Pirates'; I was having so much fun!

Do any of your characters resemble you?
I am like Flavia because I like puzzles, codes, and mysteries; plus I am bossy.
I am like Jonathan because I am Jewish by background but call myself a Christian.
I am like Lupus because I lose my temper and get angry and storm off.
Sadly, I am not at all like Nubia who is gentle, intuitive and loves animals!

How as training as an archaeologist helped you as a writer?
An archaeologist looks at physical remains in the ground. I have only ever been on one dig in Shropshire (a Roman British site) and I thought it was pretty boring! I much prefer reading the myths, poems and letters of people who lived in ancient Greece and Rome. Their writings are the main source of my inspiration. That is why I studied Greek, Latin and Hebrew,

What do you do when you get writer's block?
I don't actually get writer's block where I run out of ideas, but sometimes my plots are so complicated that I have to fit all the elements together like a puzzle. When this happens, I go for a walk beside the Thames and listen to my walkman. Somehow the rhythmical forward movement always gives me lots of ideas and I usually have a breakthrough. I also get good ideas when I am half asleep.

On the audiobook of Enemies of Jupiter Josephus says to Flavia that the Hebrew letters of Titus's name add up to the Numbers of Conclusion. What are the numbers of conclusion?
Huh? Numbers of Conclusion? I can't find that anywhere in the book. Do you mean a number of significance? Maybe the actor who read the audio book got confused... Anyway, to explain: Hebrew letters equal numbers. So aleph is 1, beth is 2 and so forth. The Hebrew letters of the name *Nero Caesar* add up to 666. Nero persecuted Jews as well as Christians so the Jews thought of him as The Beast. That is why 666 equals The Beast. Of course, Nero has been dead for ten years by the time of Enemies of Jupiter, but any other person in power who persecutes the Jews could be considered another *Beast*.

I'm confused. Is Jonathan Jewish or Christian?
In the first century AD Judaism was a religion with several sects or subdivisions or 'philosophies'.
There were the Pharisees; the Sadducees, mainly the priestly class (like Susannah's parents in 'The Assassins of Rome'); the Essenes (also known as the 'Dead Sea Sect'); there were Zealots and their sub-sect, the Sicarii (like Simeon in 'The Assassins of Rome') who could also belong to one of the other sects; and finally there were several sects who believed the Messiah had come. One of these 'messianic' sects believed their Messiah (Greek word: 'Christ') had come in the person of Yeshua/Joshua=Iesous/Jesus (to give him his Hebrew/Greek/Latin name). At first they called themselves 'The Way'. Later they came to be known as Christians. Judaism as we know it today is probably a direct descendent of Pharisaic Judaism. The sects of Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots all died out.

The sect known as 'Christianity' obviously survived to become a major religion, but because it allowed non-Jews (or Gentiles) to join, it gradually became separated from Judaism. Today, Christians still read the same holy book: The Torah. The Torah refers to both the first five books of the Old Testament, and the whole Old Testament (Tanach) and all of Jewish instruction. Christians have just added the New Testament (literally the 'New Covenant') to it.

Meanwhile, Jews today are still waiting for the Messiah to come, although there are a growing number of 'Messianic Jews' who believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the promised Messiah!

Reproduced with the permission of the author from her website at RomanMysteries.com.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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